The Thinking 

Tree School

November 3, 2009


A TREE is movement that never quite moves. Its roots protruding from the ground, an oak seems as if it is just about to take a step. Its limbs bare of leaves, the tulip poplar reaches and points and gesticulates. A row of old Japanese maples near where I live is effeminate and expressive. It is as if a choreographer had once come by and said, “Okay, girls. Arms up! That’s right. Now wave. Wave as if you were billowing sails!” When the choreographer left, the trees held their billowing sails in place, awaiting his return.

A tree is movement frozen in place, even when its limbs sway in the wind. But that is not all. A tree is wisdom.

I was raised by human beings, but I was also raised by trees: oak mothers and fathers; poplar siblings; maple aunts and hemlock uncles; pine and spruce cousins, plus a host of extended arboreal relatives whom I cannot classify. I consider them family because they have that essential feature of all relatives. There is always the mysterious feeling that they know me. I may not see a cousin for many years, but when I see him again we still know each other. So it is with tree relatives. I could not hide who I am even if I wanted to.

When I was in high school, an English teacher called me in after school one day. She wrote a word in big letters on the blackboard: ANTHROPOMORPHISM. I had never heard of it and so she explained that to anthropomorphize was to attribute human characteristics to non-human things. She said I had anthropomorphized left and right in an essay I had written for class. Anthropomorphizing is a form of arrogance, she explained. (This was very embarrassing.) It may be comforting to us to think of animals or plants or rocks as being similar to humans, but they are not. I knew that lots of people, even famous poets, anthropomorphized all the time, but I sensed that she was saying people used to be allowed to anthropomorphize but that it wasn’t permissible anymore. Society had progressed. I promised her I would never do it again.

I did not keep my promise. How could I explain to a human teacher? How could I explain? I was tree-taught and tree-tutored. I had gone to tree school, leaning against the windowsill on winter nights when there was a full moon and the limbs of the ancient oaks beyond by window were clarified by the light, walking silent and small through their blazing hallways as they dropped their leaves on my head in fall, and resting on spring days against their rough and tender bark. They taught me their alphabet and recitations and poems and stories. They taught me tree arithmetic and tree geography, tree philosophy and tree history, tree logic and tree literature.  The long and complex story of tree evolution, starting with a single seed, was laid out in detail. Where did the seed come from, I wondered.  “Haven’t you heard?” the trees said. “Haven’t you heard?”

I would have to un-learn some of my human learning, they told me. I would have to take things like a tree. Root and limb. Upward and downward at the same time. There comes a point when you cannot argue with a tree, so stubborn and unyielding is tree truth. It took a long time to absorb this education. But even when I lived in cities and walked treeless streets and looked on treeless skies, their knowledge and wisdom accumulated in my heart. I turned to them in memory. I remembered tree chemistry and tree grammar as best I could.

When it came time to raise my own children, I knew we would have to leave the city for good.  The small development where we live was built about 50 years ago. The woman who sold the land to the builders told them, “You can change everything but the trees. They must stay.” Root and limb. Earth and sky. Upward and downward at the same time. Yes, I know this is not allowed anymore. I know that society has progressed and gotten smarter.  But I will anthropomorphize until the day I die. As long as there’s a tree nearby. 





                                                                                     ——–    Comments ——–

Karen I. writes:

There is a tree in Connecticut you would be amazed to see. It is called the Granby Oak and is believed to be over 400 years old! I have seen it in person and if you ever come to Connecticut, I highly recommend you visit this tree. It is a protected landmark now and it is awe-inspiring.



The Granby Oak

Rita writes:

I loved this post. I love trees so much. I cried when my father cut down my favorite pear tree when I was a girl and I haven’t quite gotten over the cutting down (by the homeowner’s association) of a tree that was in front of the kitchen window of my condo. I loved to watch the birds (another favorite) while I washed dishes.

Your teacher was dead wrong about trees. They do have human attributes. The Bible says:

For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

Sing, O ye heavens; for the LORD hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest, and every tree therein: for the LORD hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel. (Isaiah 44:23)

There are many Biblical references to trees. I think God loves them as much as we do!

Kristor writes:

Thanks for this. I have so much to say in response, I don’t know where to start. I was a lonely boy, with few friends, and trees played a big role in my young life. They could be relied upon. I could climb my friends and be far away from everything below. I could look up and see the sky through the leaves, or the twigs, covered with snow. Up in the tree, I was up in the sky.

Eventually, when I was old enough, I went to live alone in the woods for a time. 

I remember lying in the water in Vermont, as it slowly pulled me round and round the pond, and looking up through the green leaves of the birch trees that overhung its shores, a bright and happy green, full of yellow, against the deep, impossibly blue sky. The birch leaves trembled and sighed; the forest slumbered on every side, comfortably vast, utterly still and quiet, cool in its depths. I thought, “Nothing could be more beautiful.” 

I remember walking down the road to town, 10 miles away, on a thick carpet of bright yellow leaves: ash they were, mostly. The day was warm and immaculate, an electric clarity. I was alone, the only human being for miles and miles. The road was paved with golden yellow leaves. The floor of the forest on either side was carpeted with gold, the yellow leaves piled in drifts. Arching high overhead and on all sides, the leaves were a dense, intense yellow, punctuated here and there with the scarlet of the maples. The breeze far above swayed the trunks, livening the air about me without much moving it; and yellow leaves fell everywhere, filling that cathedral with petals of solemn gold and glad yellow, the whole nave suffused with light, with an almost liquid radiance, so that even the air glowed. Above the uppermost piers, visible here and there in the apertures of the golden fan vaulting, stretched the eternal blue empyrean. There was no sound but the muffled chuckle of the brook and the steady soft hush of the leaves as they fell in their millions. I thought, “Nothing could be more beautiful.” 

I remember one evening riding in the back of a pickup down a dirt road deep in those woods in mid-winter, the bed under me full of firewood I had cut and split. The light was beginning to fade, the air moist and raw, and the trees all black as night against the new snow on the floor of the forest. The twigs and branches against the snow made billions of fleeting parallelograms as I rolled along between them, an overwhelming abundance of patterned order. An infinity of twigs reached up black into the white sky, waiting. They clattered together softly, like a city of old ladies sitting, knitting. To wait, patiently, was enough; was plenty. I thought, “Nothing could be more beautiful.” 

I remember walking up to the top of the mountain, mile after mile, on a clear chilly day. The track was an abandoned wagon road; I passed empty stone cellars open to the sky with beech and maple two feet thick growing from their floors. I sat for a while on a slab of granite some farmer had wrestled into place outside the kitchen door in 1850, covered now with lichen, but with the traces of many feet still evident on its surface. The grey floor of the forest, and the grey branches of the trees above, were interfused with a mist of green. Looking closely, I missed it; perhaps there was a tiny intimation of green on a few of the twigs, that was all. But when I looked wide-eyed, there was spring unmistakably, in full possession of the forest, despite the big patches of snow in the hollows. I could smell spring, could almost hear it. From one ridge I looked through bare grey branches at the far side of the valley, to see the dogwood blossoms covering its grey slope in a translucent pink fog. Night would bring frost: but all around me was the infancy of summer. When I got to the top, I looked out over a rolling sea of grey green mountains, stretching soft away forever under the light blue, with pink clouds hovering just below the surface, and white clouds far above. I thought, “Nothing could be more beautiful.”

Laura writes:

Thank you.

Trees are the aristocrats and noble elders of the botanical world if they are 100 years old or more. America is blessed, a land of many trees. It is hard to capture our spiritual heritage as a nation without reference to our trees, from the Granby Oak to Muir Woods.

As Rita says, the Bible contains many references to them. It’s not just that the natural world would be different if there were no trees, our internal landscape, our psyches, would be altered. It is impossible to fully convey in words what a tree tells us of God. The tree says it in its very form. It speaks in its form of God’s majesty, of the wisdom that existed before the earth was formed, and of the strivings of the human soul. But, to say this is to reduce the fullness of its message. The simplest child can understand what it says and yet the cleverest of human beings could not fully translate it.

Kristor captures so well the wonder of living in the tree community as a child and then the maturing of this intimacy, a relationship that lasts a lifetime. The seasonal changes of trees are a virtually limitless and endlessly fascinating subject. That period in early spring when the buds are first visible create, as Kristor beautifully describes, “a translucent pink fog.” It is a subtle show, a seemingly intentional counterpoint to the gaudiness of autumn. 

Robert Frost was a poet of trees, one reason why he is and always will be one of our greatest national laureates. “Into My Own”  is one of his most famous tree poems,  a vivid statement about the knowledge that comes from trees:

ONE of my wishes is that those dark trees, 
So old and firm they scarcely show the breeze, 
Were not, as ’twere, the merest mask of gloom, 
But stretched away unto the edge of doom. 
I should not be withheld but that some day         
Into their vastness I should steal away, 
Fearless of ever finding open land, 
Or highway where the slow wheel pours the sand. 
I do not see why I should e’er turn back, 
Or those should not set forth upon my track        
To overtake me, who should miss me here 
And long to know if still I held them dear. 
They would not find me changed from him they knew— 
Only more sure of all I thought was true.

Hannon writes:

 This post made me think of so many things. On the negative side it made me think of the “trees” planted in modern public parking lots, pruned by obsessive demons so that no limb can grow large enough to fall and damage someone’s car or, heaven forbid, cast refreshing shade. And it made me think of everything else.

Trees were a refuge for me in adolescence also, but in a different way. Our “street tree flora” was extraordinarily rich yet native trees did not dominate the landscape. I took a bookish, lifelong interest in the former, chasing down all the rare ones. But one day I was hikinghigh up in a canyon dotted with local sycamore and oak and willow andscratched my away to the top of a large boulder in the middle of thestream. Atop the rock was a perfect small pool where one could obtain a commanding view to everything below. Turning around and walking just a few yards I was out of the sun and in the dark shadow of a long, seemingly stylized cathedral of alders. That was a very special day.

Did you know that the scientific names of trees are feminine in gender? All the genus names are feminine, regardless of their basis, and this makes the specific epithets feminine, too. Thus Quercus rubra and not Quercus rubrus.

When I think of forests I think of tropical forests. They are so different from temperate forests it would be like me replying to you now and talking about the beach. Suffice to say the diversity of life they hold is still poorly known, and what we know is mind-bending: a one hectare plot of forest in the Peruvian Amazon has around 300 different species of trees alone. The forests of Colombia hold around 7% of the world’s flora or 30,000+ species of plants. Those places feel alien to most of us because the mere visual diversity is overpowering. Not to mention all the things that go click and zweeee and fshfshfsh in the night.

It is difficult to visit most tropical places and see the largest canopy or emergent trees of natural mesic forests, not counting kapok, banyan and others that are left standing because there is no economic incentive to cut them down. Full-size timber trees in their natural state are almost startling to behold: great perfect boles that ascend 30 or more yards before the first branch, subtle skin color and texture and sheen– this lack of real bark is especially striking — and not-so-subtle buttress roots on occasion. They have a palpable and special sort of energy. You have hiked well away from any road, or you are on an impossible incline, to be greeted by one of these sentinels.


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