How people can talk to trees

monster treeYEARS AGO, I visited the Menominee reservation and met Earl, whose family for generations had been in charge of tending to a river where a dark serpent lived. The old stories said that when the serpent was calm, then there would be peace in the world. It was the job of Earl’s family lineage to do the practices that kept that serpent placid. I don’t know precisely what those practices were, but I do know that Earl lived alone in a remote place, in the shadows of the bluffs beside which this river flowed.
The trees were tall there, the silence broken only by the sound of water running over rocks, the rustle of leaves or the trill of a bird. Earl’s children had grown and moved away. They didn’t want to carry on this tradition, he told me, and so when he died, there would be no one to tend the serpent.

Looking around that silent place, trees still and tall, I asked Earl if he ever got lonely. He shook his head and said:

“If you sit still long enough, and open, the trees will talk to you.”

As he said this, the trees seemed to lean in, as if listening to a friend. There was a palpable sense of companionship between Earl and the trees that permeated the landscape — a deep comfort and familiarity in the way he inhabited the folding chair on which he sat, alone, beside the river, among the trees, deeply intimate with his surroundings.

And now, as I consider the question of how people can talk to trees, I see that it starts with a stillness born of intimacy — a place of profound receptivity. This is the attitude of deep listening, from where we can hear the language of trees. Then we can speak to them in their language — not our own. This communion born of Earl’s deep listening was the prayer that calmed the serpent — maybe the deepest prayer there could be: to sit on the edge of impending disaster, on the edge of the demonic, and listen. This is what brings peace to the world.

Trees are only the beginning. We can listen like this to anything, learn the language of birds and church basements, metal and corn, friends and enemies, babies and flies. We can be truly multi-lingual, if only we listen. As children, listening in this way is how we naturally learn language. When I visited a language school in India, the man who taught Hindi there told me with great passion how important it was to immerse myself in the sounds of Hindi — to learn the diphthongs, the pure notes of the language as music. Tune the ear to the music, and the meaning will come naturally. We are instruments and we vibrate with the other, resonate with the sounds that we absorb. We tune ourselves to each other until we quiver as one string. That’s when we can understand the unfamiliar language that lives in another being, another body, another life — and to understand is to love.

I bought an Ektara — a North Indian instrument that has only one string to play. There is another string that you tune to the first, and it plays itself, resonating along with the string that you pluck. The two strings vibrate as one, and Earl’s loneliness vanishes in the language of trees.

Maybe this is our deepest longing — for this union with life, when if only for a moment, we are one sound, one vibration. I sensed this truth the day I spoke with Earl. I sensed the profundity and power of what he had learned, living beside the river, beside the serpent, amongst the trees. But the timing was wrong to absorb that truth and live from it completely. Other things had to happen first. The restrictions on my life, on my consciousness, are as important as its freedoms. They shape me — they shape all of us. Earl was handed this task from his father and grandfathers. The tribe had assigned him this role before he was born. It was this restriction that gave Earl the shape of his life, of his consciousness, and the opportunity to find this wisdom and peace.

Even as I write this, I think: the timing may be wrong for others to understand what I am saying here — for them to understand how to talk to trees and why we would want to. Other things may have to happen first. It’s a big leap, for a modern person who thinks they know what is “important.” Too few of us can honor Earl and his life, alone by the river with only the occasional rafting party stopping by to rent oars and a raft from his makeshift stand, which is how he earns the cash for a few groceries. “What a waste of a life,” I can hear the utilitarians saying.

But I want to bow deep, and thank life itself for Earl — that I met him and that he said this, from the quiet joy at his center: “If you sit still long enough, and open, the trees will talk to you.”

[photo by andi metzger, creative commons attribution]

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14 comments to How people can talk to trees

  • The rocks too – especially if you sit near them or in contact with them. For myself it requires much discipline to fall quiet enough to hear though!! And some days it’s impossible for various reasons. I don’t know if it’s the deepest longing of all humans (as some of us are so very different that we find one another incomprehensible), but certainly for me, those moments of union with all life are deeply treasured (and sometimes longed for in crazy times!) and a source of enduring wisdom in my life. x Pollyanna

  • By the way, I love that there has been no further bulldozing since the ceremony.

  • Yes, the rocks too! And yes, you’re so right that we are all so different from one another, and perhaps it is presumptuous to imagine what anyone’s deepest longing is, including my own. What I was trying to point to there is the profound sense of fulfillment inside the union of non-separation — being so fully there that we are part of everything. That is where the incomprehensible feeling and the differentness falls apart, when we are in the underlying place beyond difference. I sense that finding “the sweet spot” has something to do with dancing with one foot in the distinctness of things, the other in the unity, if that makes any sense. (Sigh. It’s so hard to articulate these things.)

  • Me too! And that their rice harvest was so abundant. It had been scanty the years before, after the palm oil got so pervasive. Who knows what all the ceremony affected? These things that can’t be measured just might be the things that impact us most.

  • Patricia Faith

    Thank you for the deep truth and true essence of beauty of this article. I, too, have been “talking to trees,” and plants, for awhile now. I would love to connect with others who are at the place of doing this. Many things to share with those who “understand” this relationship that has come about in such a natural way. Thanking Spirit that I saw this on FB! You are so right that the articulation is difficult regarding this topic…Namaste…

  • Patricia, it is so heartening to hear from you and so many others who resonated with Earl and his manner of “talking to trees.” I truly wondered when I posted this if people would just scratch their heads. Getting that it is actually an experience that so many get, all I can say is wow.

  • Bretton

    Life is so simple. be still and you will be gifted to see.

  • I have had a infinity for trees wince I was little and never understood it, I would find I just wanted to be near some trees and feel them surrounding me, I think I understand now. I have asked the questions before why and now I can see why thank you

  • Beautiful! Thanks for sharing this. Yes, this reunion with Life is our longing, and deep full-body listening is the way.

  • One of the ways I like to listen to trees is to find a branch or trunk that my body can mould to and lightly press into the bark. I inhale its scent, feel it’s texture, listen to its leaves brushing and perhaps its branches creaking in the breeze. Sometimes I feel the tree enjoying my closeness. Sometimes I am imbued with a deep stillness. Other times I feel as thought I’ve been lifted into the highest branches. Im often filled with awe and wonder in those moments how I ever forget to appreciate the quiet majesty of trees. Thank you x

  • Beautiful practice, listening with all the senses. Thank you!

  • Tom Jakubowski

    the time is always right to grow with trees…

  • Abi

    Thank you. If only more people took the time to really listen – to trees, to water, to each other…

  • What a lovely article.

    When you say, “Other things may have to happen first”, it occurred to me that one of those things is possibly more such articles 🙂 Indeed, to change common perception from “What a waste of life” to deep respect and understanding requires more openness around these subjects.

    I resonate completely with what is written here, and it took me a long while to start writing about these experiences. But now I do. The following post may interest you and other visitors here:

    Thank you. It feels good to meet others of a similar leaning 🙂