I wait until it’s quite late, for my neighborhood, 11pm or so, to walk my anxiety-ridden dog. I want my walks to be relaxing, and if I go out earlier she will bark at anyone and anything that moves. Incessantly. Shrilly. Irritatingly. There are enough nerves with the pandemic, so I walk late.
I try not to think. Just seeing, hear, feel, smell. Thinking doesn’t help relax. I notice that the new halogen street lights throw colder light and starker shadows on everything, including the trees, my main focus lately.
I am confident I know more about trees than the average human animal. I had huge maple trees in my yard as a kid which we tapped for syrup. As a Cub Scout I bored my first tree to learn its age. Camping with my family at The Breaks Interstate Park, I remember being taught by a ranger about different species.
I grew up with woods in my backyard, like a lot of people. Unlike a lot of people my grandparents had a house surrounded by old growth forest in Oregon. This was a place that cast a spell on me, and it was the trees. Soaring Douglas Firs, leaning, shiny, red-skinned Madrones, striated cedars hanging with Old Man’s Beard, a kind of moss.
As I grew older I learned I owed much of my comfortable existence to trees as timber. My grandfather owned a sawmill and forestry company. I learned about logging and the silvicultural industry. Clear cuts, selective cuts, spotted owls, national forest lockouts. Cruising, mopping up, spraying. I even felled a few giant Doug Firs.
I’ve read books about trees and forests. This year’s non-education reading has been particularly tree-heavy: Underland, The Secret Life of Trees, Braiding Sweetgrass, Sand County Almanac. I’ve learned a lot.
But recently I’ve added a preposition. Before this year, I always learned about trees. It was biology: a science of viewing from without: I the subject, beholding the trees and their components, the objects. Since reading Braiding Sweetgrass, I’ve been learning from them.
So I know that in my neighborhood there are oaks, maples, pines, poplars, sugar gums, dogwoods, and a variety of other species. I know various facts about those species. But I’ve begun to see the trees I walk past as individuals.
It’s good to go walk so late because the dog gets to sniff to her heart’s content as I stop and stare at the dogwood blossom terraces or the dark magnolia masses or the white oak towers or the muscular trunks of old Japanese maples or the soaring, spreading magnificence of the yellow poplars. If neighbors were awake to see me they might think I’m on drugs, staring at their trees.
Perhaps drugs would help, but the dark and the lack of thinking do wonders for me without any such assistance. The stature of the white oaks says stand tall, and I walk taller. The poplars’ breadth says to reach out, and I try, hard, to quiet my thoughts so as to reach further. Dogwoods and redbuds share their beauty in blossoms, and I imagine bringing out my beauty to share without expecting anything in return.
But the lessons aren’t all easy. I expect that, like the best teaching, relationship is the vehicle for lessons that have subtle, long-lasting effects. So as I see them more as individuals, as my respect for their being develops, I’ll be learning from them in ways I won’t be able to articulate.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer says that trees are the older brothers of creation, and so they have lessons for us on longevity. On stillness. On generosity. During the throes of a pandemic is an excellent time to be learning such lessons.