There’s something you need to hear…

When I needed to escape the digital-utopian future, I’d head up into the hills. I was not, then, particularly attuned to the magic of trees. But it doesn’t take great sensitivity to be stunned into silence by redwoods — the sight, sound, and smell of those forests, which feel to so many people like holy places.

One day, up near Skyline Road, I came across a tree the width of a house and the length of a football field. I would learn later that this single living thing was almost as old as Christianity. It dwarfed every other trunk on that ridge. As I looked at it, I began to realize that all the trees I’d been walking through were in fact no more than a hundred years old. This one tree had escaped the clearcutting that had built and rebuilt San Francisco. And the forest that it came from must have been, compared to the one I was standing in, as the OED is to a pocket dictionary. When I went back down to Silicon Valley that evening, I had the seed for a story…

When a person says, “I live in the real world,” they generally mean that they live in the artificially created social world, the human-made world that is hurtling toward a brick wall of its own making. This is what I’d ask the critics of the literature of extra-human awe: Which is more childish, naïve, romantic, or mystical: the belief that we can get away with making Earth revolve around our personal appetites and fantasies, or the belief that a vast, multi-million-pronged project four and a half billion years old deserves a little reverent humility? …

Tree-consciousness is a religion of life, a kind of bio-pantheism. My characters are willing to entertain a telos in living things that scientific empiricism shies away from. Life wants something from us. The trees say to each of these people: There’s something you need to hear…

A friend came to visit me here in my home in the Smokies. Despite the winter turbulence that whipped the jet stream around like a jump rope, making for 80-degree days in February and polar-vortex March nights 20 degrees colder than average, spring was creeping back in. The first ephemerals were rising everywhere through last year’s leaf litter: hepatica, trailing arbutus, star chickweed, spring beauties. I stopped on the trail where we were walking and pointed out the crown of a maple infused in red, like a blurry watercolor.

My friend, who’d grown up surrounded by these trees, was astonished. “Maples have flowers?”

Yes. They’ve been flowering every spring, for the last hundred million years. They flowered in every year you’ve been alive. And with luck, they’ll flower for a few years yet to come.

~ Richard Powers, excerpts from Here’s to Unsuicide: An Interview with Richard Powers by Everett Hammer (Los Angeles Review of Books, April 8, 2018)

Powers new book: The Overstory: A Novel was published this month.


Photo: imgfave (via goodmemory)

Lightly Child, Lightly.

I think the trees
are firework taxidermy. A steady
reminder of celebration and
light. How quiet. I’m a collaps-
ing house. Come collect me.

Dalton Day, “Stepping Out of Sorrow,” published in Souvenir


Notes:

  • Photo:lichtwelt, Light, 2017
  • Prior “Lightly child, lightly” Posts? Connect here.
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

 

Oh, if I could be more like a tree on this Sunday morning

See how the trees
Reach up and outward
As if their entire existence
Were an elegant gesture of prayer.
See how they welcome the breath of spirit,
In all its visible and invisible forms.
See how the roots reach downward and out,
Embracing the physical,
The body and bones
Of its soul of earth and stone,
Allowing half its life to be sheltered
in the most quiet and secret places.

Oh, if I could be more like a tree on this Sunday morning,
To feel the breath of invisible spirit
Touch me as tenderly as a kiss on the forehead.
If I could courageously and confidently
Dig down into the dark
Where the ground water runs deep,
Where shelter and sanctuary
Can be had and held.

Ah, to be like a tree
With all its bent and unbent places,
A whole and holy thing
From its topmost twigs
To the deepest taproot
To all the good and graceful
Spaces between.

~ Carrie Newcomer, “To Be Like A Tree” from The Beautiful Not Yet: Poems, Essays and Lyrics


Notes:

 

Sunday Morning

Junipers in the forests outside Warsaw.
I didn’t know that junipers like sand.
They stand, huddled, like secret, silent figures in hoods.
They walk behind us. I turn to look.
They stop in their tracks, like monks.

~ Anna Kamienska, from A Nest of Quiet: A Notebook, trans. Clare Cavanagh from Poetry Magazine, May 1, 2012


Photo: Marek7 with Forest in Kampinos National Park in on the north-west outskirts of Warsaw

Oh, that is absolutely gorgeous, grass wind and pine wind.

Sometimes you trip into something, something that is so big, and so right (this Sunday morning), that you don’t want to soil it by sharing a few excerpts. (But I’m going to do it anyway, of course.) I urge you to listen to Krista Tippett’s entire 51 minute interview with Gordon Hempton where the conversation is sprinkled with Hempton’s nature recordings. Hempton is an acoustic ecologist, a collector of sound all over the world. You can find the entire transcript and audio recording here: “Silence and the Presence of Everything.” I’ve shared a few passages below:

________

“OK. So I get out of my car, all right? We’ll still hear the pinging of its engine. We’ll hear other cars and other visitors, and we’ll hear the “beep-beep” of our modern world as people are locking their cars and the rustling of our artificial fabrics against our bodies. Some people will be chattering away on cell phones. But then the sound of my backpack goes over my shoulders, and we head off down the trail. And no more than 100 yards along these tall, tree-lined, ferned path with moss drapes that add sound-deadening to the experience, we’ll hear the call-off twitter of a Winter Wren, this very high-pitched twittering sound that might be coming from 100 feet away…And then we’ll hear further away the sound of the Hoh River that drains the Rain Forest echoing off the far side of the valley…And if we were taking this hike in the fall, we would hear the bugling of the Roosevelt elk… Up close, it’s actually quite a guttural, adrenalin-filled assertion of what it means to be male and wild. But when you hear this experience from a couple of miles away, isn’t that amazing? When you’re in a quiet place, your listening horizon extends for miles in every direction. When you hear an elk call from miles away, it turns into a magic flute as the result of traveling through this place that has the same acoustics as a cathedral. […]

Yeah. Oh, grass wind. Oh, that is absolutely gorgeous, grass wind and pine wind. We can go back to the writing of John Muir, which he turned me on to the fact that the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of the needle or the blade of grass. So the shorter the needle on the pine, the higher the pitch; the longer, the lower the pitch. There are all kinds of things like that, but the two folders where I collected, I have, oh, over 100 different recordings which are actually silent from places, and you cannot discern a sense of space, but you can discern a sense of tonal quality, that there is a fundamental frequency for each habitat. […]

But I found the sound that I enjoyed most was the sound of the silence in the volcano. The measurement of decibels actually goes into the minus point, but there still is a sense of presence, of where you are. Then once you get over the rim of the volcano, you begin to pick up what I call the mantra of the islands, and that’s the distant beating of that drum called the Pacific Ocean. […]

We’re about to enter into a giant driftwood log. It’s a Sitka spruce log, the same material that’s used in the crafting of violins, and it has a special property where that, when the wood fibers are excited by acoustic energy — in this case, it’s the sound of the ocean itself — that the fibers actually vibrate. And inside, we get to listen to nature’s largest violin. […] [Read more…]

Sit down. Shut up. Pay attention. Repeat, hundreds of times over.

I found that trees are full of sound. Wind reveals the architecture of branches and leaves, and every tree has its own wind sound, emerging from the particularities of its physiology. For example, the Ponderosa pine trees in Colorado sound different from the same species in California. Each has needles adapted to the local environment, so each sounds different when the wind blows. Broad-leaves trees are likewise diverse in their voices. City trees have rumbles of buses and trains running through them, changing the form of their wood. Birds sing from branches and insects gnaw on inner wood. Then there are tree sounds that are too high for our ears, but by listening with sensitive microphones I heard water pulsing through branches and ultrasonic clicks of distress in drought-stricken twigs. These sounds combined with the voices of market vendors working in the trees’ shade, birds singing amid traffic noise, and surf sucking at palm roots on an eroding beach. Sound is a great way into tree lives: it passes around and through solid barriers, revealing what our eyes cannot see.

~ David George Haskell, in an interview by Caspar Henderson titled: David George Haskell recommends the best books on Trees (fivebooks.com, July 13, 2017)


Notes:

  • Other notable statements in this interview by David George Haskell: “Smelling the soil, talking to other people, holding an acorn in your hand, coming to know the sounds of birds and trees: these have great power once we wake to them, partly because they are such multi-sensory activities, engaging mind and emotion… (Yet) Our modern dependence on trees is mostly hidden from our senses. We don’t hear the rain passing through forest canopies on its way to the reservoir. We don’t smell the wood pellets and coal chunks that power our computers and homes. The wood that frames our houses, holds up our furniture, and gives us paper arrives with signs of its ecological history purged. So we imagine that we’ve transcended our ancestors’ close relationship with trees. But this is illusion. There is no good future for Homo sapiens without forests. Yet forests are in crisis. We live in an age of great diminishment. In just the first dozen years of this millennium, 2.3 million square kilometres of forest were lost – cut, burned, drowned, desertified – yet only 0.8 million regrew or were replanted.
  • Photo: François Vigneron with Four in a Square (via Newthom)

 

Sunday Morning

Q: Several poems in this collection speak to a desire for silence—an even bigger appetite for it than the speaker originally had thought was needed. How much silence do you usually need to write, and how do you get it?

JH: I need more and more silence, it feels. Poems don’t leap into my mind when I’m distracted, turned outward, with other people, listening to music. It’s more for me as with going into a forest: if you sit quietly for a long time, the life around you emerges. As the world grows ever more clamorous, my hunger for silence steepens. I unplug the landline.

~ Jane Hirshfield, from Of Amplitude There Is No Scraping Bottom: An Interview with Jane Hirshfield (Tin House, March 15, 2016)


Notes:

 

Often I found myself expelling a quivering, involuntary “Whoa”

The trees are so big that it would be cowardly not to deal with their bigness head on. They are very, very big. You already knew this — they’re called “giant sequoias” — and I knew it, too. But in person, their bigness still feels unexpected, revelatory. And the delirium of their size is enhanced by their age, by the knowledge that some of the oldest sequoias predate our best tools for processing and communicating phenomena like sequoias, that the trees are older than the English language and most of the world’s major religions — older by centuries, easily, even millenniums. The physical appearance of a tree cannot be deafening, and yet with these trees, it is. Facing down a sequoia, the most grammatically scrambled thoughts wind up feeling right. Really, there’s only so much a person can do or say. Often I found myself expelling a quivering, involuntary Whoa. […]

Late one afternoon, I lay down in the snow at the base of one for a while, watching as the fog poured in through its crown, and I remembered how untroubled Riksheim sounded at the bar the previous evening when, lowering his voice, he mentioned that there was a particular sequoia near his house that he was keeping an eye on. He could wake up dead tomorrow, he said. “It’s just that flying, fickle finger of Fate. Every once in a while, it’s going to point at you.” Then he fluttered his long, bony index finger through the air and lowered it with a sudden whoosh. Out of nowhere: crash. And I realized that his experience of it — a feeling of forsakenness, of arbitrary cruelty — would be essentially the same as the tree’s.

Two days later, I was snowshoeing around alone when I discovered I was standing in front of the same sequoia I had lain under. There, in the sloping snow at its roots, I saw my imprint. My back and legs and arms were joined into a wispy column, with the perfectly ovular hood of my parka rounding off the top. It looked like a snow angel, but also like a mummy — an image of both levity and dolefulness, neither all good nor all bad. I took a picture of it: what little of myself was left after I’d gone. The figure looked smaller and more delicate than I thought it should, but the Giant Forest was so quiet that I couldn’t imagine who else it could be.


Photo: The General Sherman Sequoia Tree – 275 feet tall, 100 feet around. Sequoia National Park from the foothills of central California’s Sierra Nevada. “To a human being, a 2,000-year-old sequoia seems immortal.”  (David Benjamin Sherry)

Through these woods I have walked

aerial-oregon-forest-winter-mt-hood

Through these woods I have walked thousands of times. For many years I felt more at home here than anywhere else, including our own house. Stepping out into the world…was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight. I was stepping across some border. I don’t mean just that the world changed on the other side of the border, but that I did too…They recognized and responded to my presence, and to my mood. They began to offer, or I began to feel them offer, their serene greeting. It was like a quick change of temperature, a warm and comfortable flush, faint yet palpable, as I walked toward them and beneath their outflowing branches.

~ Mary Oliver, from “Winter Hours” in Upstream: Selected Essays


Notes: Photo: Michael Shainblum: An aerial image of a snowy morning in Oregon taken during a misty sunrise near Mount Hood. (Photo selection inspired by Dec 21, 2016, the Winter Solstice.)

Sunday Morning: Such Silence

fall-autumn-forest-woods-aerial

As deep as I ever went into the forest
I came upon an old stone bench, very, very old,
and around it a clearing, and beyond that
trees taller and older than I had ever seen.

Such silence!
It really wasn’t so far from a town, but it seemed
all the clocks in the world had stopped counting.
So it was hard to suppose the usual rules applied.

Sometimes there’s only a hint, a possibility.
What’s magical, sometimes, has deeper roots
than reason.
I hope everyone knows that.

I sat on the bench, waiting for something.
An angel, perhaps.
Or dancers with the legs of goats.

No, I didn’t see either. But only, I think, because
I didn’t stay long enough.

– Mary Oliver, Such Silence,” from Blue Horses

 


Sources: Poem – Thank you Whiskey River. Photo – Delta Breezes

%d bloggers like this: