Land in the Sky: A Tree Out There

It has been said that each of us has a tree out there somewhere.

The difficulty these days is that you have to go in search of it. In former times it was customary—and in some places may still be—to plant a tree for good luck when a baby is born. Thus one’s tree was right there in the yard, and it would grow with the child. Between them they enjoyed an intimate rapport with life, a shared destiny.

This symbolic tree was carefully tended, and if it flourished, so did the human being, but if it was afflicted with blight or if it perished, the corresponding human life suffered a fate in kind. There was an affinity between the arboreal and human realms, expressed in a language unbound by any dictionary. I have heard it said that if you know how to “read” your tree, you have a most effective oracle. All you have to do is go out there and find it.

A-Tree-Out-TherePrince Siddhartha searched many years before finding his tree, but when he did, he sat himself down in its shade and became the Buddha. Adam and Eve found their way to a tree, one of two that grew in the Garden of Eden. It was called the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For reasons of his own, God had told the couple to stay away from it, but they ignored the warning and ate of its fruit. God found them out and was vexed; he banished them from the Garden before they could get to the other tree. My friend Jan VanStavern found hers, a venerable maple, growing in front of her childhood home. Upon returning from school each day, she would throw her arms around it in a great embrace. Today she measures the character of those who enter her life by hugging them: the noble souls feel like the old maple tree.

I caught a glimpse of my own tree once, when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey. It was an early morning in mid-October and the trees were putting on their autumn glory. The day was still in shadow. At the edge of our backyard stood an ordinary shagbark hickory, a tree I had never paid much attention to. A hard frost the night before had fringed the hickory’s golden leaves. I happened to be looking out the back window of our house when the rays of the morning sun first glanced off the tree’s uppermost boughs. The tip of that shagbark suddenly became a golden flare, a flaming sword turning every which way, guarding who knows what gate.

Then just as suddenly, the shagbark let go its uppermost leaves and poured forth a slow, golden cascade upon the lawn. As the sun rose higher and its light fell lower on the tree, the same process—a moment of brilliance followed by a saffron rain of leaves—repeated itself, again and again, down the length of the canopy. For ten minutes or more I watched this go on, until the sun had undressed that tree entirely. I can’t remember exactly what happened next—certainly some spectacular shift in consciousness would have been in order—but sights such as this are lost on suburban boys, and likely I went back to my Saturday morning cartoons. My tree remained unclaimed.

In high school I came across a quote by St. Bernard: “What I know of the divine,” he says, “I learned in the woods.” This seemed like a modest improvement upon the Catholicism I was raised in. Shortly after that I read Walden—another improvement—and decided that I, too, would go to the woods. So in college I moved to Maine and majored in forestry, where I was taught that “trees are America’s renewable resource.”

“Resource” is one of those funny words, commonly used but only understood uncommonly. Originally it was a verb and meant “to go back to the well (i.e., the source) and get more water.” Later it came to mean a substance or material recognized to have utility for society, something that can be quantified, assigned a value, and applied to a purposeful end. Usually a resource is consumed progressively as it serves its purpose, but trees we say, because of their ” renewability,” escape this fate. Nowadays we speak of human resources, the renewability of which, I suppose, depends upon your faith.

In my senior year, I took a culminating course called “Forest Economics.” It was not designed for those who would live in the woods. In an everyday sense, the word “economics” refers to the management of the household—making the bed, buying the groceries, balancing the checkbook—but in the university, economics is said to be “the study of the allocation of scarce resources.” Applied to trees, this definition leads to some strange ways of talking. “In terms of production,” the professor explained, “trees are unique because they are simultaneously the factory and the product. If only we could find some way to encourage them to harvest themselves, then we’d really be in business!”

Little of this style of thinking ever proved useful to me, but I still recall the slides the forestry professor showed of an old-growth redwood stand in California. The lecture hall all at once felt more like a cathedral than a mausoleum, and those photographic images might just as well have been stained glass. The redwoods towered with their greenness and handsome branches, their crowns lost in a misty rustle among the coastal clouds. Later, when I finally made it to California, I learned that the birds of heaven, here called marble murrelets, nested in the lofty redwood boughs, and ten thousand mysteries were lodged in the fern-thickened shade of the forest floor. The professor said nothing of all this; his mind was elsewhere. “Hurry up and get out there and see these trees now,” he said. “All those senescent stands will be harvested within the next ten years. Even age rotations are what those timberlands need. Good forest management will take care of that.”

The message was clear: in these American woods, there is no past, no poetry, only the bottom line; no ghost, no god in the tree nor angel in the air, but only the feathery schemes of experts who have the forest all figured out. When I graduated from the University of Maine in 1980, I had a B.S. in Forestry and they gave each graduate a white pine seedling, but still I had not found my tree.

Proverbs are the original field guides to life. In Russia it is said that from all old trees comes either an owl or a devil, and this wisdom holds true in North America as well. Local legends and vernacular histories abound with tales of strange goings-on connected with trees. Near High Point, New York, for instance, there is the story of Rowland Bell, a barefooted fiddle player who lived in a log cabin and had quite a reputation as a healer. He would cut a lock of his patient’s hair and place it in the hole of an aged chestnut tree that grew along the road nearby. The tree would then shake and tremble like an aspen and the patient would be cured, the malady having been shifted to the tree. But that was a hundred years ago; chestnut blight has long since killed that tree, and today managed health care tries to keep most people out of the woods.

On the campus of a small college in the northeast there is an ancient oak known as the “Chewing-gum Tree.” Its trunk, from the base to as high as you can reach, is sheathed in a thick layer of hardened gum wads, the residuum of several decades of ruminating students who disposed of their spent quids by sticking them to the tree. The word around campus is that if you walk by this oak at midnight you can hear a faint murmuring or buzzing coming from it, said to be the voices of all those gum-chewing students from the past, still discussing long-forgotten exams or the joys and sorrows of youthful love. Some students believe that if you ask this oak a question about your future, it will tell you. Privately the administrators at the college regard the tree as an eyesore and even a health hazard (all those generations of germs!), but they fear removing it because it is supposed to have been planted by the college founder; to cut it down would be seen—at least in the eyes of alumni benefactors—as tantamount to cutting down the family tree.

The old shamans who lived in the thickly wooded Pacific Northwest had a strong spiritual connection with trees, much like the druids had with the oak in Europe. Through an assortment of rituals and charms, the shaman used his or her tree as a spiritual helper to ascend into the sky and consult with various cosmic beings in order to gain news of the other world. Among the Salish people, one of the most powerful spiritual helpers was known as “Biggest Tree,” and it was reported to aid the shaman in obtaining special gifts made from cedar. These little gifts were in fact “alive” for those who had the power to perceive and use them.

A similarly magical worldview lies at the very roots of the Great Western Tradition. In ancient Athens there was a religious sect known as the theoretikoi, who resorted to thick forests and quiet groves in order to conduct their meditative practices. When discussing the psyche, Aristotle often uses the term theoria, the root of our word “theory.” Roughly translated it means “contemplation,” but it can also mean “sending ambassadors to an oracle.” Perhaps this was the Greek way of seeking “Biggest Tree.” After all, the most famous of their oracles was the one at Dodona, which originally consisted of an immense old oak with a spring gushing from its base. Through the rustling of its leaves and the remarkable doves that alighted in its boughs, Zeus announced his supreme will to human beings. That old oak stood and delivered its sacred messages to many centuries of eager querents, until a robber came along and cut it down. When the tree fell, the oracle fell silent forever.

Once upon a time in Japan, there was an old willow growing beside a stream. Nearby was a temple. On the other side of the stream was a village. One day the villagers felt they needed to build a bridge, so they decided the tree should be cut down and used to supply timber. One young man among them, however, loved and respected the willow. He alone remembered that the temple had been built in the first place by their ancestors to honor that very tree. He offered other trees from his own land to the bridge builders if they would spare the willow. They agreed, and so it was saved from the axe.

Shortly after that, the young man encountered a beautiful young woman sitting under the willow. They agreed to marry, but she told him he could never ask where she was from nor who her parents were. The two lived happily together for many years. The man grew very old and frail, but his wife remained young and beautiful.

Then one day the Emperor decided a new temple should be built. The village offered the willow to supply the lumber, believing that this would bring them good fortune. On the morning the tree was being felled, the man who had once saved the willow was awakened by his wife. “I am the spirit of the willow,” she said. “Because you saved me once, I married you to make you happy, but now I must leave you forever. The willow is about to die, and so must I, for we are one and the same. I go now to the willow.” And with that, she went away.

The world’s largest American elm stands in Louisville, Kansas—or so it did until March of 1997, when “an angry youth,” according to the Manhattan Mercury newspaper, tossed a firebomb into a hollow of its massive trunk. Residents of Louisville, Kansas, were strongly attached to their elm and are deeply grieved over its loss. “This random act of violence,” wrote one commentator, “not only ruins a lovely, highly prized tree, it ruins a champion from a species that is seen all too rarely these days. An outbreak of Dutch elm disease in the 1960s wiped out a large portion of our nation’s elms, especially in cities, where elm-lined streets became barren.”

In America, we love our trees and keep track of the biggest in each of the species. I have visited a few of them myself. Even though none of them turned out to be my tree, they do belong to somebody. In Louisville, Kansas, there is talk about placing a memorial shelter and plaque at the site of the immolated elm. That all trees felled by human hands should receive such homage!

Earlier in this century, Aldo Leopold wrote that conservation is “a matter of what a man thinks about while chopping, or while deciding what to chop. A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of the land. Signatures of course differ, whether written with axe or pen, and this is as it should be.” Signatures, I suspect, are written with a far wider variety of instruments than merely axe or pen. It would be worthwhile to talk with that “angry youth” and find out on whose behalf he was acting. Was it his tree?

At the center of Nordic mythology was the World Tree, called Yggdrasil. It was described as an immense ash rooted in Hell but the boughs of which supported Heaven. In between lay the Earth. The trunk of the World Tree was an axis that linked human beings to those who dwell above as well as to those below. There was a prophecy that, at the end of the world, Yggdrasil would provide shelter to the last man and woman, and from them would sprout a new lineage. The Old Norse word Yggr, which is related to the English word “ogre,” is another name for the god Odin, supreme deity and creator of the cosmos. To hang a man on the gallows was to string a sacrifice on Yggr’s tree; after death he became a member of Odin’s band, riding the storms with him.

To “baffle” a person once meant to subject him to public disgrace or infamy by hanging him upside down from a tree, a horrifying reversal of everything that person stood for. A public hanging, or any form of execution, is a ritual moment of suspense, requiring witness: what hangs in the balance is a question of transformation. The gallows is but one tree hung between two others. Our coffins are made of trees.

Indeed, death traditionally has been portrayed as a forester. He was called holz-meier, or “wood-mower,” by the sixteenth century German writer Kaiserberg. In a book entitled De arbore humana, he writes: “So is Death called the village-mower or wood-mower, and justly hath he the name, for he hath in him the properties of a wood-cutter, the first of which is communitas, he being possessed in common by all such as be in the village, and being able to serve them all alike. So is the wood-cutter common to all the trees, he overlooketh no tree, but heweth them all down.” Along the Columbia River, the Indians’ custom was to place the bodies of the dead in boxes and sling them by cedar-bark cords from the branches of trees; eventually the cords would give way, and the bones would be strewn upon the ground like fallen leaves.

A logger in Oregon once appeared on network news. A reporter had come out to the woods to interview him at work. He took time out from his labors to answer the reporter’s questions. The logger was very polite. He wore a hard hat. He resented environmentalists because they all lived in the city and said they loved the forest but knew nothing about it. “How can you love what you don’t know?” For his part, the logger was intimate with the forest, having cut down a good bit of it. He did not live in the city. He knew what he loved and stood by it. Behind him stretched a vast swath of open land; stumps and slash indicated a recently removed forest.

The reporter could not resist a certain irony. She pointed to the clear-cut. “How is this love?”

Not a fair question to be asked on national television, but as that man now looked out in hopeless confusion upon the field of his endeavors, the inexplicable terrain of his love, he was desperately looking for something. Maybe his tree.

“I do love the forest,” he said at last. “This doesn’t look good, I know—but my family….I’m sorry that what we have to do is so ugly.”

The words of another spiritual forester come to mind. “Too late I learned to love Thee,” writes St. Augustine in his Confessions, “O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I learned to love Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee.” Now here’s a fellow who found “Biggest Tree.”

To find your own tree, a transition needs to be made. But of what kind? In psychoanalytic theory, a “transitional object” refers to something used by a child as a kind of emotional comforter. Typically it is a piece of cloth or a doll or a teddy bear. In their theory, psychoanalysts regard the transitional object as a psychological bridge that enables the child to cross from “primitive narcissism” to a more mature emotional attachment to human beings, which are the only appropriate hooks on which to hang our love, or so they say. Thus in a small child, a deep and powerful attachment to a teddy bear, or a tree, is considered normal, but in an adult such fondness for the nonhuman is a sure sign of neurosis, or worse.

Nevertheless, there seems to be something a little off about this way of describing how the innumerable relations out there compose our respective worlds. The wrong theory is a major handicap to finding your tree. Pigeons alighting in the boughs at Dodona, murrelets in a redwood tree—things my forestry professors never spoke of. A lady once complained to the great American artist James McNeill Whistler that she did not see the world he painted. “No, ma’am,” he replied. “But don’t you wish you could?”

Earlier I mentioned that there were two trees in the Garden of Eden, and that Adam and Eve found and tasted but one of them, the Tree of Knowledge. The other tree, the tree they never attained, was in fact the biggest tree in the Garden, the one that God guarded most jealously. It was the Tree of Life. “And the Lord God said, Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil: and now, lest he put forth his hand, and take also of the Tree of Life, and eat, and live forever….” And so Adam and Eve were driven away, into endless generations of longing. What the Bible fails to report, but is well attested by legends surrounding the story, is that for the rest of their lives, Adam and Eve kept trying to find their way back, not for the Garden itself nor for any home they wished to reclaim, but for the Tree they never found.

After I spent most of my growing-up years daydreaming of trees far north and west of New Jersey, a perverse law of compensation would have it that, as I stand on the threshold of middle age, living in the dark woods of Idaho, much of my dreamlife should now be spent back in the Garden State. The other night, for instance, I dreamed of that hickory tree in our old backyard. It’s been twenty years since last I saw it, yet there it was again in all its flaring, turning glory. This time, instead of remaining in the house, I rushed out into the yard in order to throw my arms around its trunk and claim my tree as it shed its golden treasure of leaves upon me and the leaf-gold lawn.

But I woke up before I got there.

(This essay originally appeared in Quest magazine and subsequently was included in O’Grady’s Grave Goods: Essays of a Peculiar Nature.)

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