By now I think everyone has heard of or read or at least seen bookstore stacks of The Hidden Life of Trees : What They Feel, How They Communicate―Discoveries from A Secret World by Peter Wohlleben. I waited for the book for ages in a library queue and of course it came in with other holds, and when I was busy, and of course it wasn't renewable because many people had it on hold behind me. So. I sped read the book at the time, but have a hankering to properly re-read it.
From the book:
Whether we can somehow listen in on tree talk is a subject that was recently addressed in the specialized literature. Korean scientists have been tracking older women as they walk through forests and urban areas. The result? When the women were walking in the forest, their blood pressure, their lung capacity, and the elasticity of their arteries improved, whereas an excursion into town showed none of these changes. It's possible that phytoncides have a beneficial effect on our immune systems as well as the trees' health, because they kill germs. Personally, however, I think the swirling cocktail of tree talk is the reason we enjoy being out in the forest so much. At least when we are out in undisturbed forests.
Walkers who visit one of the ancient deciduous preserves in the forest I manage always report that their heart feels lighter and they feel right at home. If they walk instead through coniferous forests, which in Central Europe are mostly planted and are, therefore, more fragile, artificial places, they don't experience such feelings. Possibly it's because in ancient beech forests, fewer "alarm calls" go out, and therefore, most messages exchanged between trees are contented ones, and these messages reach our brains as well, via our noses. I am convinced that we intuitively register the forest's health.
In the header image (if you read the email version of this post, you might like to take a peek at the browser view) and the one above, you'll see my favourite tree which is in the next neighbourhood over from mine. Longtime readers of my Calm Things blog, or those who have read my book Red Velvet Forest, will know about my affinity for forests. (Though really, who does not have feelings for trees and forests?)
Fans of Annie Dillard might remember these lines from Tinker at Pilgrim Creek:
Concerning trees and leaves... there's a real power here. It is amazing that trees can turn gravel and bitter salts into these soft-lipped lobes, as if I were to bite down on a granite slab and start to swell, bud and flower. Every year a given tree creates absolutely from scratch ninety-nine percent of its living parts. Water lifting up tree trunks can climb one hundred and fifty feet an hour; in full summer a tree can, and does, heave a ton of water every day. A big elm in a single season might make as many as six million leaves, wholly intricate, without budging an inch; I couldn't make one. A tree stands there, accumulating deadwood, mute and rigid as an obelisk, but secretly it seethes, it splits, sucks and stretches; it heaves up tons and hurls them out in a green, fringed fling. No person taps this free power; the dynamo in the tulip tree pumps out even more tulip tree, and it runs on rain and air.
We might read this alongside Hermann Hesse's words:
For me, trees have always been the most penetrating preachers. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche. In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.
Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.
A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.
A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.
When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother. Home is neither here nor there. Home is within you, or home is nowhere at all.
A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one's suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.
So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.
Oh, but that desire to turn into a tree is a strong pull:
“Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.”
- Czesław Miłosz
To believe you are magnificent. And gradually to discover that you are not magnificent. Enough labor for one human life.”
- Czesław Miłosz
When we woke up to frost a few days ago, the first thing I thought of was my tree. (Which I know is not really my tree). I've been neglecting it this season though, and this had to be remedied. So even though it was very cold, we made the trek to the next neighbourhood.
It was a bit earlier than usual as I still had to get home and get myself ready for work. The sky was pink and blue and with the frost and snow there was a sort of blue glow cast on everything. I wanted to stay longer but at a certain point couldn't feel my feet anymore. (This in my 'good to -40c' Sorels so you know it was cold). Trees still speak in winter though, and I listened for as long as I could. Went home with winter messages - that rest, too, can be magnificent. That waiting has a quiet of its own. That it is possible to feel at home in the holy sanctuary of trees.