Breathing Trees

Inhale

Slash of sunlight, tempered by voile drapes of moss, dripping and curling filamentous fingers around dark branches. The woods are shaggy with green and, in this autumnal light, aglow.

My mind is also rank with vegetation. Filled up with verdant ideas I brought to these woods about the porous boundaries between plant and animal kingdoms; latticed with thoughts about our kinship and dependence on these beings who create energy from sunlight; saturated with the emerging research on the many ways plants communicate with one other, with fungi, with insects, and with us. I am thinking of a recent series of court rulings—in India, Nepal, Australia, and Columbia—affirming personhood for nonhuman entities. Whole landscapes and watersheds even. The Te Urewera forest in New Zealand/Aotearoa, for example, gained legal recognition as a person in 2014. If “person” and “human” aren’t treated as equivalents, the only other context in the United States we might have for a broader definition of personhood is that corporations can, legally, be considered persons. I remember well Mitt Romney’s folksy soundbite: “Corporations are people, too, my friend.” Of course they are, Mitt. I’m interested in how the personhood of a forest might not only expand nonhuman rights but, more importantly, reframe our relations.

My back and shoulders pressed into a Douglas-fir trunk, I wonder: Can individual trees be considered nonhuman persons? Are the Douglas-fir and I back-to-back? Being upwardly compelled, trees don’t favor a side so much as they incline toward light. The trunk behind me provides a spongy mattress of moss conforming to my curves. I scan the area. Exuberant greens, slow growth, all growth. Everything twisting into everything. I realize I am searching for something to orient me, but the forms of orientation on which I usually rely depend on identifying and distinguishing between things. Right now, nothing seems apart from anything else. No individuals here. As Fred Swanson, a retired fluvial geologist, said jokingly when he showed me around earlier, he was happy to give me my dis-orientation.

My first disorientations in this forest—the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest, 16,000 acres with forty percent intact old-growth, situated in the Western Cascades in Oregon—involve being overwhelmed by scope. My eyes keep drifting upward, drawn by verticality to the worlds above my head, treetops one hundred, two hundred, two-hundred-fifty feet into the sky. Here at ground level are the trunks of temperate rainforest familiars: Douglas-firs and their canyon-scored bark; ascending hemlock with spiraling limbs arcing like interpretative dancers; an occasional Pacific yew and its cancer-fighting medicines; the red cedar with wood resistant to desiccation peeling into strips of light.

In the crepuscular understory, the combination of light and moisture coaxes the invisible to become visible. I can see the place breathing. Multiple breaths, various twists of air. There are shallow draughts—mists that send warm, miniature clouds eddying in frostbit morning currents—and there are deep, slow inhalations, the ones that take the day to pull in. I am here to learn how to take deeper breaths.

I feel a greater sense of kinship with the epiphytic moss than I do with the tree at my back. Like moss, I am hanging on…

The tree I sit under filters the dappled light for energy. He? She? They? have been doing this for centuries, before any Spanish galleon ever struck the shores of this continent.

Prior to arriving at the Andrews, I thought I would enter this old-growth woods and find likeness leading to mutual recognition; instead I feel vast differences that sprout from sunlight and wind and water and a soil with an overactive imagination that can ascend into the air.

I thought I would find reciprocity. But I feel a greater sense of kinship with the epiphytic moss than I do with the tree at my back. Like moss, I am hanging on and absolutely dependent on what preceded me. I wonder if trees find it strange that I can’t produce my own food as they, as alchemists of sunlight, can.

I inhale deeply, filling my lungs. When I exhale, I see the shifting cloud of my breath—something I typically, and mistakenly, think of as internal—carried off through a sparkle of sunlight, a fine mist gemming the air as it whispers away.

Inhale

I breathe because of these green beings who forged a way, filled the planet with breath enabling the two-legged critters of my species to thrive. They summoned us forth: rise and walk. The gift cannot be repaid; it can only be inhaled and exhaled. Maybe if I listen closely enough, I think, I will be fortunate enough to carry something back to other two-leggeds. Maybe I’m surrounded by bark-covered, deep-rooted people, swaying their many arms above my head.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

During my “disorientation,” Fred flooded me with a rich history of change: scientists’ names, various decades-old research studies, forest management paradigms, and now, with the Long-Term Ecological Reflections program, a growing legacy of poets and writers and artists summoned in to witness—with a responsibility to take deeper breaths. While here, I will consider a culture that clearcuts, full of humans prone to poking, prodding, and thinking what is of worth is exclusively what can be extracted. I am here to ponder this, and then see if it is possible instead to give, to love, to sink willingly into entanglement.

My first instinct in the woods is to name. We begin relationships with an apprehension of individuals. We split someone from the indistinct masses to get to know them better. Nice to meet you, Sara. It’s a pleasure, David. We use individuals as stand-ins to signify the qualities of larger groups. Our minds can’t hold it all, so we work to comprehend by identifying representatives.

Gavin Van Horn

A shard of danger lodges itself in this act of separating. Nothing is individual; each individual is a composite, a composted being. An individual tree is nothing but relationships, the forest that breathed arboreal form into being and will receive it back after its vertical days are done. And so, too, are we nothing but relationships.

Words are poor and inadequate for expressing such things. Words want to divide, name the parts, extract and manage the cacophony of input. We begin with names. We assemble these into prose. We talk about.

To understand is to stand under, preferably in an understory, under the tutelage of stories…

If you want to communicate within a forest, though, you’ll find words slipping away. To understand is to stand under, preferably in an understory, under the tutelage of stories older than the human venture to tell them. In the understory, the assembled words of human stories begin to fragment, to go back to the humus from which they emerged. We might resort to poetry, an inward feeling scrambling to find purchase, pushing past explanation and gripping a sensation. Then, even the poetic words are gone.

Inhale.

Beyond the scribbles of poetry, a language of the body, a shared language before words got in the way of understanding. Gestures. Genuflections. Generative motions. Embrace this shared language and you might find yourself letting go—letting go and falling headlong, stretched into the soil, drawn upward through the branches.

But these moments—timeless minutes when the veil of words tears from top to bottom—are fleeting. At the end of the month, the end of the day, the end of the hour snatched between business meetings and childcare and dishes, we must return from the forest. Out of the forest, we spend most of our time in a world of words.

So long as we don’t forget where the words come from, this world of words is probably nonlethal. That’s the trick to the whole magic show: not forgetting. Because forgetting—mistaking the words for worlds—is perilous, culturally fatal even. Come back to the forest to remember.

Inhale.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

A bundle of red, yellow, blue, white, and gray wires press tightly together in parallel paths and ascend straight up the furrowed bark of a massive Douglas-fir. The wires remind me of an electric race track, the kind you could put a matchbox car on, depress a button on a cheap plastic remote control in your seven-year-old fist, and watch zip around the curves until it flew off the track and shattered. But all of these wires on the tree serve a greater purpose. They lead up the trunk, and they also lead to a metal box protected from the elements. This box, by wireless magic, leads to Oregon State University, where data from the site is continuously recorded. Day after day, invisible variations in temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity, and leaf wetness are measured and sent to computer servers that translate such things into numbers.

This data, when weighed against other monitoring sites in the Andrews and other forests, provides evidence that offers a basis for action. Fred opened my eyes to this when he talked about the differences in water flow in clearcut sections of the forest and areas that hadn’t ever been cut. You can see the patterns with a baseline. Surprises come up. Anomalies lead to more questions. This can impact real-world policy. Scientific work at Andrews played a huge role in an endangered listing for the spotted owl, the poster animal for old-growth forest protection, which triggered the creation of the Northwest Forest Plan. The spotted owl’s dependence on old-growth forests—and the ability to measure that phenomenon at Andrews, along with owls’ declining numbers—provided incontrovertible evidence for their protection. To ensure the owls’ chances of survival, the habitat also had to be protected, saving many trees from the saw.

There’s more to the story than that. Spotted owl numbers continue to decline, despite efforts to preserve the last contiguous stands of old growth. Turns out owls are also a proxy for a larger set of broken cultural relationships. What a miracle of science it would be if we could accurately and concisely measure the costs of human exceptionalism, or place a sensor on stories that jeopardize our health, or graph the declining line that indicates the slippage of awe and reverence for a living world. The seemingly insoluble problem for those of us who partially benefit from dwelling within industrial, extractivist cultures is how simple it is to lie to ourselves about what constitutes collective well-being.

Gavin Van HornI look up the trunk of the Douglas-fir, with its sensors that ascend to 56 meters. Here’s one thing that has been detected: cool air descends the trunk and threads its way from the canopy to the forest floor. If you scale this up, to a forest of large trees like this one, it’s possible to say that the forest creates conditions for its own well-being, a pocket in the pants of the larger landscape, sustaining cooler, wetter air. Scientists are wondering if such places could be climate refugia, places that don’t experience as much fluctuation on a warming planet. 

On a typical night, air flows slowly down the valley. In the daytime, warmed by the sun, heated air expands and rises, flowing up the valley. Fred mentions that these larger cycles are called watershed respiration. His wife, Julia, studies this. Maybe I would like to meet her? Definitely, I say.

I can’t stop thinking about this collective breathing: watershed respiration. The instruments, day in and day out, quietly go about their business, measuring the landscape’s breathing.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Does the tree mind the wires? Does a tree need a mind to mind? As I gaze at the wires, I imagine a hospital patient, hooked to feeding tubes and IV drips. This tree isn’t on life support, though. Quite the opposite. This tree is part of creating the conditions for life, from the chartreuse mosses wrapping themselves around the trunk, to the damp air I am currently inhaling. Maybe the tree is the IV, circulating nutrients and oxygen through the forest biome.

Yet these metaphors feel too clinical for the entangled work of forest breath. I look back at the box that safely houses the brains that collect data, shooting it into the ether for scientists and their coffee-supported grad students to download. The wires do their work, silently tabulating in our absence. Technologically slick, but for some reason the wires trouble me—something having to do with an arm’s length (or more) approach to other living beings and the word objectivity.

During the post-World War II housing boom, as soldiers returned from war, big swaths of hillside in this forest were clearcut to meet the demands of people eager to celebrate a new era of prosperity. Humanity had been saved from fascism. The forests paid a price for it. Old beings, half a millennium and more in years, hacked and sliced until they toppled, were carried away in segments, cut and milled into still smaller segments, and measured and valued in “board-feet.” Objectivity.

Gavin Van Horn

Such wholesale destruction on public lands is no longer breezily sanctioned. But a pile of metaphorical sawdust collects around our more benign acts of scientific inquiry: we’re still poking and prodding with instruments into a world we treat as an object. Is that what I’m doing as well? Scientists with their gauges, me with my pen and paper? A charitable view of these probings would say we are all listening, trying to understand, seeking long-term data and points of reference that presumably help us appreciate how all this works together, sometimes pausing, perhaps to be astounded by what we learn—and the mysterious unknowables—of the greater whole. Most of the work is non-intrusive. To the tree, we may be another forest beetle crawling on the surface of the trunk. If trees could mind, they might be amused. If they had shoulders, they might shrug. Whatevs. The wires are another form of epiphyte, a hanger-on benefitting from the scaffolding the tree provides. No harm, no foul. This is an “experimental” forest, after all. One of its functions (according to human declaration) is for science projects. We are here to gather.

When does gathering slide into extraction? Perhaps when the pieces are valued more than the whole. Anything truly worth something can’t be easily marketed because the market depends on division: it’s easier to sell parts (limbs, ham hocks, gemstones, crude oil, gold, copper, cadmium, boards, shingles, shave creams) than it is wholes (earth, tides, friendship, loyalty, love). The value of a Douglas-fir is easy to quantify in board feet. The true worth of a Douglas-fir—even if, even because, we can’t quantify it—is immeasurable in terms of its life-givingness. You can more readily say what it costs not to have clean water, or soil that holds in place when the rains fall, or streams full of salmon redds (gravel nests) sheltered by the forgiving shade. A market isn’t about keeping things in place, however; things need to be broken to make them interchangeable. This reduction is a sacrilege, a violation of wholeness. I expect we tend to measure because of how much we’ve forgotten.

At least part of my task during my brief stay in this forest is to consider the possibility that the trees are listening.

There is a common rootstock between clear cutting and these kinds of experiments: no one bothers to ask the trees’ permission. No one bothers to apologize for the possible intrusion, for this would be to admit an awareness other than our own.

I don’t underestimate the improved relations: it is a strong step in the right direction to go from ecocide to trying to understand. We can even confidently say we are learning, which makes trees teachers of a sort. Stretch that teaching role further and we can say trees are elders, memory-keepers, perhaps even model bodhisattvas who share long-lived legacies with us, their two-legged toddlers. When a baby grasps a handful of your hair, even when it stings the scalp, you are likely to forgive the curious gropings. If we presume we are more than babes in the woods, I think we should bother to ask the trees’ permission.

I would guess that a so-called objective view would dismiss such hocus-pocus as foolish. Why? In part, it must be that we think no one is really listening. We reserve that talent for ourselves—whether we listen through instrumentation that amplifies our own physical sensitivities, or through our sympathetic imaginations that amplify our capacity for feeling. At least part of my task during my brief stay in this forest is to consider the possibility that the trees are listening.

I lean further back into the Douglas-fir. Maybe an inhalation is a form of listening.

 
 

Exhale

“Put your finger in the air,” Julia says. She sticks the tip of her index finger in her cheek, extracts it, and points it upward, like some cartoon version of a field goal kicker. I obey. The original scientific instrument, I think, looking at my finger. After a few moments, I feel the slightest difference of temperature, a cool hush whispering across the wetness of my fingertip. “You feel that?” asks Julia, as though we are hearing a secret. I nod. “Coming from that direction,” she motions slightly with her head, “moving down the valley.” I never thought a trembling breeze could feel this significant. Watershed respiration.

Later, my body finds refuge in a patch of sunlight. I am alone now. Or am I? I wonder, looking at the forest canopy, following the few shifting rays of sun reaching the needled and moss-dappled floor. Luminous reflections shimmer and scatter through the gaps of vegetation. I am in the research plot dedicated to measuring. The hum of an aerator purrs. Cords snake and curl like spaghetti toward grey metal boxes. The tangled mess looks like the interior of a computer lab whose janitorial technician got laid off.

Gavin Van Horn

Slowness is measured here: tree growth and breaths. I feel my sense of self slipping away as I consider such alternative time scales. I am so temporal, so temporary—a Will-o’-the-wisp in a forest that dreams in decades, centuries, millennia. I will come and go, a ghost across the needles, a phantom in the understory. To think in tree time, you must watch a nuthatch weave a nest from start to finish. The Long-Term Ecological Reflections program has a two-hundred-year trajectory, just long enough for a tree to stretch its limbs and yawn.

I can’t stop thinking of the phrase watershed respiration, that collective breathing, a tide of air sucked in and whispered out, cycles within cycles, cradled back and forth.

If we treat plants as persons, as kin, taking life becomes a weighted act. We are implicated.

Can it be said that a tree not only listens but cares about what it hears? And would a tree care if we cared? Would a tree care if we bothered to ask permission before approaching for anything—fuel, data, a story? Or is this just a polite trick we play upon ourselves, asking permission, the moral equivalent of “even if it can’t hear you, it’s good for you to ask”? A similar logic to what motivates anonymous acts of kindness. I’m not here to build my own sense of goodness. I’m here to ask: What if? What if we allow ourselves to be a little discomfited for prodding our way into relationship, our perceptions shaken by wondering what reciprocity looks like between unalike living beings. What if? What if something—someone—is listening? What would an ethic of belonging, together, look like? What protocols of respect would this summon forth over time as two unalike beings found their likeness and communicated best as they could through their differences? Can we cross species lines, loosen our fists from our loyalties to team-human?

Ecologist Robin Wall Kimmerer, a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, offers practical guidance about reciprocity between plants and humans in her book Braiding Sweetgrass. From an indigenous perspective, she says, one manifestation of such reciprocity is understood as “the honorable harvest.” We should not forget that we humans are non-photosynthetic beings, entirely dependent on the “inherently generous” plants who provide for our sustenance, Kimmerer writes. If we treat plants as persons, as kin, taking life becomes a weighted act. We are implicated. In short, it’s personal.

How can we properly honor the life and astounding generosity of plant-kin? One way, Kimmerer avers, is to become more intentional about our approach. Some key principles of the honorable harvest are: asking permission for the life you are taking; taking only what is given (if the answer you receive is affirmative); and practicing reciprocity by offering something back. Gratitude should suffuse every part of this.

Would a clearcut be permissible if one were to abide by the protocol of “the honorable harvest”? Of course not. A clearcut violates the most basic rules of reciprocity. A clearcut follows another logic: there is no need to ask permission of beings who have been reduced to things. In addition to biological devastation, a clearcut severs relations of reciprocity, violently slicing through their very possibility.

How can such severance be prevented? I think it has something to do with an ethic of belonging. I came across this phrase in biologist David Haskell’s book The Songs of Trees, where he discusses it at some length. Haskell notes that the principle practice for an ethic of belonging, which he also refers to as a process of un-selfing, is listening. An ethic of belonging—and the listening it requires—strikes me as something close to animism, the perception that “the world is full of persons,” as religion scholar Graham Harvey puts it, “only some of whom are human.” An argument could be made (and has been made) that children are naturally inclined to animism. I smile when I recall my son, at four-years-old, pointing to a large group of people rushing through the airport, and saying, “Where’s that herd of humans going?” The case could also be made (and has been made) that for the vast majority of the genus Homo’s existence (and possibly that of other hominid species), animist cultures have been predominant, with social practices that express and celebrate belonging within a more-than-human world through dance, song, oral narratives, genealogical and cosmological understandings, practical arts and crafts, and hunting rituals. That many of us might now need to cultivate such practices—for the sake of our own survival—is testimony to how brutally they have been disparaged as “uncivilized,” suppressed as “savage,” and erased with violence.

Gavin Van Horn

Long-term ecological research and reflections, such as the kind conducted in the Andrews Forest, can be about measurements and statistical analysis; it can also be understood as a matter of flesh-and-blood relations. Ethnobotanist Enrique Salmón provides a helpful way of thinking about this. In writing about his people, the Rarámuri (an indigenous population living in the Sierra Madre mountains of Chihuahua, Mexico), Salmón coined the phrase “kincentric ecology.” This indicates how the hierarchies many of us take for granted (i.e., humans atop a creaturely pyramid) do not apply among peoples who view nonhuman beings as kinfolk. There may indeed be nonhuman kin that are more honored—beings that are more culturally important, with denser symbolic meanings and practical uses than others—but the idea that humans are somehow separate from or not responsible for the world within which they dwell is inconceivable.

One of the salient aspects of a kincentric ecology is that it matters with whom and how you relate with other living beings. Relationships are cultivated over time. Listening takes practice. The protocols of the honorable harvest are taught from generation to generation. We learn how to be human in the company of our various earthly kin.

The Andrews Forest is a constant burble of communication, of conversation, and perhaps of communion. I am swimming through a field of mindedness. The questions one brings into the forest shimmer and shift in terms of subject-object. No longer does the question “What do you have to offer me?” seem appropriate here. Rather, questions plunge me into a greater collective: “What can I sink into that is already being said? What would you have of me?” Can I slow down until the trees bring me to mind?

There may be a built-in irony to unselfing. A steady affirmation that the forest is not about you can begin to feel like indifference. You belong and you don’t. It’s hard to hold both thoughts at once.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

It gets dark, so dark, here. In the daytime, you navigate dampened light, as though a lampshade has been thrown over the sun. But at night—at night, the trees cast shadows that dull headlights. They somehow keep absorbing darkness after the sun falls. They thicken the night, lending it texture, weight. They make you feel you are always—and will always be—a visitor in this landscape. You keep moving lest they inadvertently absorb you.

The forest can feel inhumane, tangling feet, hooding the light, bewildering in its height, its layer upon layer of vegetation, its storm-wracked branches and shattered trunks washed upon brackened shore. Native peoples in this area historically used well-trodden highline trails to move between mountain ranges. They burned these paths to clear the brush, cultivating delicious berries and other edible plants in the openings. Depending on the season, the trails were lined with ready-to-eat snack mix. More rarely did they descend into the less welcoming kingdom of the conifers.

My pants are soon soaked with water. There are many possible paths and it becomes difficult to choose between them.

I descend. Off the main stem of the path leading to a decomposition research site. All variety of experiments reveal themselves—red and blue plastic flags sprout on pliable metal rods, PVC pipes rise from the ground like hollowed-out mushroom stems, occasional metal boxes with inscrutable codes on their lids mark some other long-term study. I wander into the forest, following faint marks in the underbrush, pushing aside spindly, light-hungry maple branches. I stumble across spots festooned in an aura of magic: a moss-covered stump fit for a Cheshire cat; a sub-canopy of hemlock creating the perfect forest anteroom. I follow lines of bright orange-red decay, fallen Douglas-fir innards spilling out of their trunks’ six-foot-diameter boles with ochre geodes. At times, I must use my hands to hoist myself up these giants, slide a thigh over like I’m mounting a horse, and slip down the other side.

I can hear the creek. Light rain becomes more earnest. I turn back the way I came. I step knee-deep through rotted branches. No forest bottom can be detected here. A cross-hatched mat of limbs creates uneven, split-level footing. My pants are soon soaked with water. There are many possible paths and it becomes difficult to choose between them.

I reckon a direction and try to keep in view some flagging that marks decomposition study plots. I look to trees that seem familiar. I am soon bewildered.

Gavin Van Horn

I approach a creek, newly fat with water—one I hadn’t previously encountered. In the canopy, there are bright chunks of clouded light, perhaps indicating a road in the distance or a clearing, but this is difficult to gauge. It occurs to me that if I continue to travel uphill I should come to the—or a—gravel road, yet the terrain is uneven, the trees a variety of heights. I begin to contemplate worst cases. Why does my mind do this? A night in the woods, soaked clothes, a temperature drop. I have a couple of pieces of jerky, ten ounces of water. Uncomfortable but not death. I could follow the slope of the land downward toward what I presume is Lookout Creek. The travel would be numbingly slow yet it would keep me active, and the creek would eventually run by the Andrews’ headquarters. No signal on my phone. Compass of no use. Sun vanished for good behind thick clouds. Rain increases.

I see a piece of blue plastic tied to a tree. How long before I’m missed? How long will the night feel? I walk toward the plastic tie, thinking the safest thing would be to stay close to any experimental detritus I can find from the decomposition research. But what if this is a blue herring, luring me deeper into the woods, away from my best route out? What would a moss-covered lump roughly the shape of a human body look like on the forest floor? That would give decomposition research different overtones.

I walk between blue ties, hoping they mark a way. Relief floods my body in a giant wave. One of the big, black, plastic sheets used to measure leaf fall and needle accumulation appears. I stretch, take a deep breath. Exhale. Decomposition can wait.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

If we engage trees as persons, allow our utterances and etiquette to stretch toward a more-than-human perspective, would we begin every encounter with an apology? There is so much for which we have need to beg forgiveness. I am awestruck by the sensitive instruments that help us go beyond everyday sensorial capacities, extending our range of hearing by tuning into forest memory. Yet perhaps, absent these technological appendages, there are simpler, accessible technologies of the imagination available to everyone—cultivated dispositions that extend the sensitivities of our own body-minds. Can our awareness be more finely attuned to what trees are up to? Can this be done without appearing batshit crazy? I wonder if, at this late hour of extractive insanity, there is a different way to do relationship, not business, with trees. Maybe un-busying ourselves is the first step toward listening, and listening is the first step toward reciprocity.

I have a friend, Stephanie Kaza, whose mother needed to remove an elm tree from her backyard. In her book, Conversations with Trees, Stephanie writes that the elm was a “horticultural decoration,” planted with a desire for privacy from the neighbors and for the shade it would cast on warm days. Yet the tree’s roots had begun to insist that the foundation of the home bend to arboreal desires. The tree had become an inconvenience. Stephanie wasn’t under any illusions that she could stop the felling of the tree, but she did feel she needed to be there to mark its passage and reckon with the loss. Being a Buddhist, she drew loosely from her ceremonial traditions:

With three sounds from a small bell, I began. I walked slowly around the tree nine times, breathing deeply, calling the tree people to listen. I knew almost nothing of the tree’s history. I had barely begun a conversation with this tree. It felt like giving communion to a total stranger before death. Last rites, these were last rites. I lit a small candle and offered four sticks of incense to the four directions, placing them at the base of the tree. The tree was the centerpiece of its own altar, the altar of its death… I chanted a dedication under the dripping rain, a request for forgiveness for those who plant trees too close to homes. I asked for compassion for those who are uncertain about how to care for tree beings and for those who suffer the consequences of loss of tree friends… Three last bells and the short ceremony was over. It was a quiet act of intention that did little to reverse the fate of the tree. But at least the elm did not die alone.

 
 

Inhale

I’m lulled and lured into a bed of moss. Eventually I find myself lying back, some mixture of my own will and something else’s pulling me to earth, sinking me into the ground. Thoughts cease to flow, or at least flow more slowly, like dust motes in the light. And as I lay there, thinking very little, I hear a perceptible hum, a steady crickling like a campfire without the pops, a thrum of energetic exchange. I swear to you: I feel my lower lip buzzing.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

The place I frequent most while at the Andrews is called the “Discovery Trail,” a little winding path with numbered markers at irregular intervals. The numbers no doubt refer to some significant point of biological interest. I never found a pamphlet that would have explained. Without a paper guide, marker #4 pulls me in. This takes me down a narrow, sinewy trail, off the main route, until I duck beneath a maple branch marking a threshold. Raising myself upright, I am in a roughly circular clearing. A towering Douglas-fir in the center of the clearing suggests ancient Druidic rites.

I approach the tree, awed by its singular presence, and press my forehead against the trunk. I stand atop a softened, moss-laden slope blanketing old roots. The roots carry my imagination down into dark soil and stone, where they divide and extend their search for earthy knowledge, the kind that can sustain a being over aeons, the kind known only to touch and feel and persistence. Below my feet in the dark, parliaments are formed across kingdoms of life, agreements struck at a cellular level to help nutrients and water and sugar and all sorts of atoms flow and assemble into visible form.

Forehead against the mossy bark, I try not to think—to silence the continuous stream of chatter that typically occupies me. I realize how time-bound I am, always planning; such structure, I imagine, ensures greater certainty that I’ll be productive. I don’t want to waste opportunities. I want to use my time efficiently. These are metaphors of the machine, of the clock, of the robotic, invisible hand. So in my head I arrange breakfast, morning schedules, weekly needs—compulsively. In my head—this same head pressed against a five-hundred-year-old elder. The pressing helps stretch my own narrow timescales into a timeline with multiple branches. The pressing threatens to break the internal stopwatch of my incrementally divided life. What does it take to slip out of time, the constructed divisions of seconds and minutes and hours that bar us from being fully present?

The Douglas-fir nudges me toward timelessness with the hum of silence.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Conifers have “stomatal control.” In hot, dry weather, the small pores that allow carbon dioxide into the tree close up, guarding precious water. These trees can stop photosynthesizing in the middle of the day, taking a siesta like any sensible creature should.

A lichen only found in old-growth forests, Lobaria, a nitrogen-fixer, lends assistance in maintaining humidity and moisture. I find many dried Lobaria on the Discovery Trail path. Lobaria is known as “lung wort”—its shape, and function, resembles a lung.

With the advent of eDNA analysis, a new round of research is focused on the needles of Douglas-firs, which may have thousands of fungi and other microorganisms living in them. Known as endophytes, the numbers vary with the age of the needles and the position of the tree. Hyphae of these needle-loving fungi droop outside the stomata when it closes, possibly continuing to harvest moisture while the tree rests from its labors. It’s a big collective out there. Inhale.

A tree is never an individual, reducible to component parts. When it decays, it nurtures a multitude…

Cycles within cycles. There is also breath-like reciprocity to a tree’s lifespan. The tree emerges from the soil collective, rising to the light, feeding a thousand diners; the tree descends and, prostrated, rejoins the soil collective, feeding a thousand diners. But it should be clear by now, a tree is never an individual, reducible to component parts. When it decays, it nurtures a multitude, leaving only a trace, a suggestion of shape in fecund soil, until even that is absorbed.

My grandfather—conservative when it came to religion and discipline, liberal when it came to gambling and generosity—requested that Matthew 25:21 be read at his funeral: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant … enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” I like to imagine something similar occurring when a tree finally lays its burden down. It is only a new beginning, after all. The end of one life has occurred, but death has lost its sting. Inhale. Exhale. Enter and have thy rest.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

The headquarters at the Andrews Experimental Forest has a small library containing a sizable number of excellent books. I can’t help myself. Trees on the shelves. There are the field guides, as would be expected, covering all manner of biodiversity, from nematodes to bark beetles. Because the Andrews has been a place for writing residencies the last fifteen years, there is also a fantastic selection of more soulful nature writing. I let my eyes fall where they may, practicing a variety of intuitive bibliomancy, and happen to select Dwellings by Linda Hogan. I go to bed that night after reading her essay, “All My Relations,” which describes her participation in a sweat lodge ceremony. In her no-nonsense poetic style, she writes:

By the end of the ceremony, it is as if the skin contains land and birds. The places within us have become filled. As inside the enclosure of the lodge, the animals and ancestors move into the human body, into skin and blood. The land merges with us. The stones come to dwell inside the person. Gold, rolling hills take up residence, their tall grasses blowing. The red light of canyons is there. The black skies of night that wheel above our heads come to live inside the skull. We who easily grow apart from the world are returned to the great store of life all around us, and there is the deepest sense of being at home here in this intimate kinship. There is no real aloneness. There is solitude and the nurturing silence that is relationship with ourselves, but even then we are part of something larger.

What am I gathering in the nurturing silence? What is the without that wants a way within? What ceremonies bestow affirmations of breakdown between those worlds?

I sometimes refer to my writing as a form of foraging. I go to places to “have an experience” so I am able to then put pretty words on paper. Without the proper intention, this can easily be seen as yet another form of extraction—from the forest, from myself—to have something worthy of the market. Some assemblage of words that I can break into saleable chunks that others may deem clever enough to buy, perhaps words that move others enough that they, too, will venture into the forest to lose themselves for a moment, taste a wholeness that resists the market. Seems easier to clearcut the middleman, the brokering with words.

This shouldn’t be interpreted as a lack of love for writing. I am a book-thumping evangelical when it comes to the power of words to open up new worlds. I want to share these kinds of words. I want them to be more than my own. Yet I also want to acknowledge their mischievous tendency to get in the way. In “The Language of the Master,” Paul Kingsnorth writes about this double-bind—how we can’t solve the problem inherent to the English language, its noun-heavy abstractions, its distancing effects between the subject and “object,” its obeisance to industrial metaphors. His counsel is to seek languages “that the machine does not speak,” including the language of myth, religion, practical expertise, poetry, and other forms of communication that dwell in unknowing and that cultivate a listening silence.

It is time to stop speaking and listen. Come to the trees: to forget and to remember.

If words can do something, if they can sink into the heart, open up new paths of perception, lead us to the threshold of a forest, this is all to the good. Then we must leave them. They’ve done their work. They got our bodies where they needed to be. At this threshold, we must thank them for their service, and lay them down. It is time to stop speaking and listen. Come to the trees: to forget and to remember. To forget the straightjackets of manufactured time and cubicles. To remember something much older than the Gregorian calendar and the forty-plus-hour workweek. Come to the trees: to touch and be touched by something more primary, more whole.

Among my favorite Robinson Jeffers poems is one called “Return.” In it, he writes, “I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,” comparing the continuous intellectual chatter in our brains to the breeding of “mouthless May-flies darkening the sky.” Things and things and no more thoughts, he pleads. Leave the words behind, even if you are compelled to write a poem about it later.

I lift my forehead from the Douglas-fir, eyes closed.

Inhale. Earth. Green.

Exhale. Bark. Humus.

Inhale. Light. Needles.

Exhale. Dark. Roots.

Inhale. Hum. Silence.

I take a few backward steps to better crane my neck upward and follow the lines of grooved bark into the sky. Before leaving #4 on the Discovery Trail, I kneel before the Douglas-fir that towers above the circular clearing. I do this without thinking. It is a response. A gesture useless to the market. A way of communicating what remains now that words have slipped away.

If humans fall on their knees in the woods and there is no one there to hear, do they make a sound?

 
 

 

www.humansandnature.org
andrewsforest.oregonstate.edu

This is part of ROT, a section of The Learned Pig exploring multispecies creativity through modest tales of collaboration and coexistence amidst world-ending violence and disorder. ROT is conceived and edited by Julia Cavicchi.

 
 

The Learned Pig

 
 

Gavin Van Horn

Gavin Van Horn is the Creative Director and Executive Editor for the Center for Humans and Nature. His writing is an entangled, ongoing conversation between humans, our nonhuman kin, and the animate landscape. He is the author of The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds, and co-editor of Wildness: Relations of People and Place and City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness. Gavin edits and writes for the City Creatures Blog and has published works of creative nonfiction and poetry in Emergence, Orion, Undark, Sky Island Journal, Belt Magazine, The Red Wheelbarrow Review, and Zoomorphic, among others.