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Talkin To Trees Or Lessons From The Overstory And The Understory

08/29/21 by Joshua Pawelek


My father spoke to trees, specifically the oaks in his backyard.

And he was fairly certain they spoke to him.

As most of you know, Dad died of a heart attack this past May. For those of you who don’t know, he spent his career as a research scientist at Yale University, primarily studying skin cancer and the ways that cancer metastsizes. He often generated scientific ideas through his daily meditation practice, sitting in a chair in the backyard, facing his beloved oaks. We always knew the oaks were important as the setting for his practice—their presence deepened his experience, freed his mind for a-has and eurekas. Some of you from the Unitarian Society of New Haven might remember he gave a sermon on trees in late 2019. In that sermon he said, “I have had the distinct feeling that the trees were communicating with each other and maybe even with me.” More recently he reported that the oaks were giving ideas directly to him.

I have no idea if those beautiful, old oaks spoke to him. But I love the idea that they might have. So I’d like to make the case that they did speak to him, and, furthermore, that trees speak to all those who are open, attentive, attuned, curious, and genuinely willing to listen.

My father is not alone. In a 2019 essay entitled “Animism, Tree-Consciousness, and the Religion of Life,” University of Florida professor of religion and environmental ethics, Bron Taylor, describes an experience he had while running in the Arroyo Seco, a canyon carved by the Los Angeles River. “One misty morning, while descending into the canyon,” he writes, “I gained a subtle perception that the trees, shimmering in a light breeze, were trying to communicate with me—not with spoken words, but as thoughts that came into my mind. They told me how hard they were working to purify the air we were polluting. I perceived their ethical judgement as well: We should change our ways and learn our planetary manners.” [1]

In mainstream US culture this experience of trees speaking is outside the norm. Professor Taylor confesses he had a vivid imagination. But for most of human history, people across the planet believed spirits resided in natural things and were quite capable of communication. Scholars of religion often call this belief Animism. According to professor Taylor, “Animism … refers to perceptions that natural entities … have one or more of the following: a soul or vital life-force or spirit, personhood… and consciousness, often including special spiritual intelligence or powers…. Sometimes Animism involves communication and/or communion with such intelligences … or beliefs that these intelligences … are divine and should be worshipped and beseeched for healing or other favors. Animism generally [results in] felt kinship with [these intelligences].”[2]

Although scholars often describe Animism as an ancient, discredited belief, it has never disappeared from the world. We witness versions of it in indigenous cultures on every continent who hold the land as sacred and experience nature as kin. We also encounter versions of it in modern, technological societies. We encounter it in the way people express a profound sense of relationship to the natural world and its creatures when discussing environmental crises like climate change. We find versions of it in the American, English-language nature writing of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold and those who follow in their tradition. We find it in the nature-centered work of poets like Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry; in Tolkein’s Ents of Fangorn Forest; in Rowling’s Whomping Willow guarding the Forbidden Forest. We find it in Afro-futurist writers, oriented toward the African continent (Nnedi Okorafor, Tomi Adeyemi, Marlon James) who center the orishas or similar earth-based spiritual entities. We encounter it in Neo-Paganism, Wicca, Druidism, even in Religious Humanism.[3]

It lives in our congregation. As Eileen Driscoll sang, the trunk of the tree … the branches … the leaves are calling me. They speak to me…. The trees, they are talking to me.[4] When I began my ministry at UUS:E, one of the first memorial services I officiated was for Nancy Johnson, at which we read her poem, “Trees.” She writes: Pressing against their sturdy trunks / I feel the sap surging through my veins, / And sense the sweet buds bursting forth. / In this embrace I gather peace, strength, hope / And a promise of renewed life.[5] My point is that myriad versions of this ancient spiritual belief exist today. We encounter them all the time.

Of course, beliefs don’t prove trees literally speak. When a respected research scientist acknowledges that his ideas come from trees, most of us, myself included, are likely to react, on our better days, with some measure of loving, tolerant incredulity; and, on our worse days, with concern for that scientist’s grip on reality. He doesn’t mean it literally, does he? Has he told his doctor?

We can get stuck here, feeling compelled to make a choice. Either the trees are speaking or they aren’t. Yes or no? Which is it? Make up your mind? But it’s also true: a well-lived spiritual life doesn’t require such choosing, advises us to avoid strict binaries, invites us away from black/white thinking into life’s grey spaces, shows us life as a continuum where the edges of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ blur and blend together, where connections, like tree roots, run deep, and where multiple possibilities reside.

I might have become stuck, but a friend who knew about Dad’s tree-talking lent me a copy of Richard Powers’ 2019 novel The Overstory. Dad had read this book. I’m sure some of you have read it. For those who haven’t, Powers tells the stories of how nine main human characters relate to trees. In doing so he creates what I call a tree communication continuum, which I find helpful as I reflect on Dad’s experience.

Underlying the continuum is the incontrovertible evidence that trees communicate with other trees, often through fungi that link their roots into vast underground networks. In The Overstory, the character Patricia Westerford, a dendrologist (one who studies the characteristics of trees), discovers and is the first to publish scientific evidence of trees communicating among themselves. She’s a fictional composite of the real-life scientists who’ve made these ground-breaking discoveries, such as the German scientist Peter Wohlleben who wrote The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (which Dad quoted extensively in his 2019 tree sermon); and the Canadian scientist Suzanne Simard, who recently published Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest.[6] Westerford’s groundbreaking book in The Overstory is called The Secret Forest. Again, she and her book are fictional, but the science is real. She writes:

“Something marvelous is happening underground, something we’re just learning how to see. Mats of mycorrhizal (fungi) … link trees into gigantic, smart communities spread across hundreds of acres. Together, they form vast trading networks of goods, services, and information.”[7] She writes about the way trees send chemical signals to each other when they’re under attack by insects; how they coordinate nut production, how larger trees “store extra sugar in their fungi’s synapses, to dole out to the sick and shaded and wounded.”[8] She writes about trees as communities.

She also offers a compelling view of trees as adaptable, responsive, creative, constantly seeking different ways of branching, spreading, flowering, acquiring water, sun, nutrients. She says they guess, they experiment, they see what works and they change accordingly.[9] In response to conditions they divide, multiply, transform, conjoin and endure.[10] This is all one end of the tree communication continuum. She isn’t literally talking to trees, isn’t hearing their voices. She’s studying, researching, experimenting. Though she seems very spiritual, she’s clear that one doesn’t need a mystical experience to learn what trees have to teach. The information is there for those who pay close attention. Science is thus one way for information to flow from trees to humans.

On the other end of the tree communication continuum is the character Olivia Vandergriff, a college senior who suffers a near-death experience and, upon coming back to life, hears trees speaking to her, follows them to northern California and, at their direction, becomes an anti-logging movement leader.

She definitely hears tree voices. She also feels, perceives, intuits, tastes, smells, hugs and, eventually, inhabits trees. I read her as undergoing a sustained mystical experience, and assume that is how Powers wants us to read her. He never implies she is living with mental illness, though he is aware people who hear voices are often diagnosed this way. Maybe it’s a mystical experience, maybe mental illness. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what matters is that as a college student she is shallow and lost; but as one to whom trees speak she gains clarity, purpose, vision, a sense of profound urgency for the planet, and is willing to take action.

How do I interpret my father’s claim that the oaks spoke to him in light of Olivia Vandergriff? Given that he heard the voices in response to his spiritual practice, I observe him as similar to the fictional Olivia, undergoing a regular, meditation-induced mystical experience. It was not distracting. It didn’t reduce his ability to function. Rather, it increased his clarity, purpose, vision and sense of urgency. Furthermore, I see a person perceiving, in a healthy way, that the world is alive, and that he was guided, held, and nurtured by trees.

Finally, between the scientist and the mystic on the tree communication continuum is what I like to call the sensualist. Throughout The Overstory, a number of characters become so attuned to the physical lives of trees that they begin, not to hear voices, but to receive messages through their senses. Earlier Susan Barlow read The Overstory’s opening passage, in which the character Mimi Ma sits on the ground and leans against a pine tree. “Its bark presses hard against her back, as hard as life. Its needles scent the air and a force hums in the heart of the wood. Her ears tune down to the lowest frequencies. The tree is saying things, words before words.” The scene continues later in the book:

“Messages hum from out of the bark…. Chemical semaphores home in over the air. Currents rise from the soil-gripping roots, relayed over great distances through fungal synapses linked up in a network the size of the planet.

The signals say…. The air is a mix we must keep making.

They say: There’s as much belowground as above.

They tell her: Do not hope or despair or be caught surprised. Never capitulate, but divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, and endure as you have all the long day of life.”[11]

Divide, multiply, transform, conjoin, do, endure—a compelling message from the physical bodies of trees about how life responds to being alive.

We humans share a significant amount of DNA with trees, as we do with all living things. Doesn’t it seem possible, that if we slow down, sit still, pay attention, attune ourselves to the patterns, the currents, the hums, the smells, the hardness of bark—to all the connections that are already there, just beneath the surface—that we might actually experience the trees communicating, signaling, bathing us in sensual meaning, speaking words before words, telling us what they want us to know? Doesn’t it seem possible they speak this way constantly, and it is our task to listen?

That possibility was the heart of my father’s faith.

What words before words do the trees speak to you?

Amen and blessed be.

[1] Taylor, Bron, “Animism, Tree-Consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory,” posted in the Minding Nature Journal (Winter, 2019, Volune 12, Number 1). See: https://www.humansandnature.org/animism-tree-consciousness-and-the-religion-of-life-reflections-on-richard-powers-the-overstory.

[2] Taylor, Bron, “Animism, Tree-Consciousness, and the Religion of Life: Reflections on Richard Powers’ The Overstory,” posted in the Minding Nature Journal (Winter, 2019, Volune 12, Number 1). See: https://www.humansandnature.org/animism-tree-consciousness-and-the-religion-of-life-reflections-on-richard-powers-the-overstory.

[3] Furthermore, a popular life coach and self-help author named Holly Worton says the idea for her latest book, If Trees Could Talk, was given to her by a yew tree she encountered on a forest retreat. See “Interview with Holly Worton” at NFReads.com at https://www.nfreads.com/interview-with-author-holly-worton/. Also see Worton’s blog post, “Tree Communication: How to Talk to Trees,” on HollyWorton.com, July 18,2020. She writes: She writes, “When I talk to a tree … I’m talking to its spirit…the thing that makes it alive…. It’s the soul of the tree.” See: https://www.hollyworton.com/how-to-talk-to-trees-communicating-with-tree-spirits/.

[4] Driscoll, Elieen, “Tree Song,” unpublished. Composed for UUS:E worship service, August 29, 2021.

[5] Johnson, Nancy, “Trees,” unpublished. Composed for UUS:E worship service, April 18, 1993. (Special thanks to Sandi Hartdagen and Donna Johnson who found the poem!)

[6] For an excellent overview of Suzanne Samard’s work, see her May 4, 2021 National Public Radio interview, “Trees Talk To Each Other. ‘Mother Tree’ Ecologist Hears Lessons For People, Too” at https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/05/04/993430007/trees-talk-to-each-other-mother-tree-ecologist-hears-lessons-for-people-too.

[7] Powers, Richard, The Overstory (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2018) pp. 218 – 221.

[8] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, pp. 218-221.

[9] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, p 491.

[10] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, p. 500.

[11] Powers, Richard, The Overstory, pp. 499-500

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