It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools—that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here, spread into matter, connected by cells right down to our feet, and those feet likely to fell us over a tree root or jam us on a stone. The joke part is that we forget it.
It’s called psithurism—the sound of the wind through the trees. Can you hear it now, wherever you are? What’s it saying? What is it you hear?
My older sister has a stroke.
In the days that follow, I drive up to visit her and her family in northern Michigan, to take my nieces around to baseball and soccer games, to cook dinner—to be present. At dusk, when everyone is asleep, passed out from exhaustion, I walk out the back slider-door, down the shaky deck stairs, and survey the land. Beyond their backyard is a massive acreage of farmland usually potted thick with corn. This year, they’ve rotated in soybean. The verdant seedlings shoot up from the soil. There’s a chill in the air. Five miles north of me is Grand Traverse Bay. I hear the distant pop of fireworks exploding, which recently have been legalized year-round in Michigan.
My sister never saw the stroke coming, the visual impairment. Just a crack, television static, and then the world was suddenly cast fuzzy.
Scotland born, Wisconsin raised, John Muir famously traveled the world, wrote about natural landscapes, ecology, fought for conservation, and trumpeted a hearty outdoor lifestyle that included moving away from cities and back into the American wilderness. He saw the Divine everywhere in Nature.
Muir’s father—stern, grim—worked his family to the bone, dawn to dusk. In the few breaks they had from chores, John and his brother explored the land around their home. He grew autonomous. While others moved to cities for work, to recuse themselves from the harsh reality of the countryside, John Muir preached a life of simplicity. He went on speaking tours, wrote and published prodigiously. He orated on street corners.
Yet, Americans longed for the city; they no longer wanted to be farmers, to live prone to remoteness, animals, and wildness. In 1890, 35% of Americans lived in urban areas. Between 1870 and 1920, the population of American cities grew from 10 million to 54 million. People were leaving behind openness and green spaces for economic prospects and modernity. This was the American Dream in the heart of America’s geographic expansion westward—to conquer and to possess.
Folks didn’t “enjoy” the outdoors until the 20th century. The thought of going outside to camp, to be outdoors for recreation was an indulgence. A mere myth—that no matter where or who we were, we could walk away from work, from our lives for a time. That we could afford some other dream life altogether.
I sometimes draw re-imagined landscapes of places I’ve visited before. They are always impossibly colored in my mind.
When I was young, I had a piece of petrified wood from the American Southwest I brought with me everywhere. I kept it in my pants pockets. When I was anxious or needed soothing I’d pull it out and rub my thumb along the surface in small circles. In its swirling colors, a whole galaxy, a history nubbed down to a palm-sized trinket.
In fifth grade we received elm saplings as graduation gifts, signifying our growth. I was delighted. Back at home, I scouted out five or six locations where I thought my elm stood the best chance of coming up and drinking in sunlight. I also wanted it to have a view of the road, my neighborhood where I played, as if my coming and going could be metabolized by its cracking boughs and spreading trunk.
Instead, my father told me it would have to go in the backyard, in the wayback corner where two neighbors’ fences joined at a right angle. I hated that spot for the sapling, but relented. I followed the instructions we were given and dug a deep, symmetrical hole. I dug with a shovel at first and then my tiny hands. We filled it in and watered it graciously. When my family went back inside I stayed out there a while watching it, wondering if I could see it grow or if it would communicate with me in some way. But here it was, dark and gloomy, a part of the yard where little grew because of existing tree cover. Plus, these were the neighbors I didn’t like whose children, older than I was, were mean to me for no reason. I complained to my parents, lobbied for a change of scenery. It was just a tree, they said. And it’ll be fine.
Now, when I go home to visit, I always check on it. It’s still alive, yes, but for being almost thirty years old, it’s slighter than it should be, crookedly peering over hedges like it’s reaching out for help, just barely taller than the chain-link. Its leaves are thinning.
My sister has good days, but many bad. She calls me often in the weeks leading up to my visit, beside herself, her vision still affected and blurred, the world out of focus. She says, “Why did this happen to me?”
I say, “I’m sorry.”
What else is there?
And that’s the thing I come back to: this happened to her, beyond her prediction or control, cast her back into a place so small and insignificant within a wide, distant world. When her family relocated to Traverse City they were promised a view of the water, but more houses went up soon after they moved, blocking the vista, walling them off. If you head out to the main road, you can just barely see Grand Traverse Bay, but miles away yet, due north. In the summer, if you stand on that road, heat lines rise up from the pavement. It becomes then, living this close to something so beautiful, a mirage, looming just out of reach.
At night, in her guest room, I can’t fall asleep. The house creaks. My sister is supposed to be getting more rest, but she’s upstairs, pre-dawn, pacing, clutching the couch and the counter for support, pacing in her dirty socks.
The world around her has shifted and distorted. She’s teaching herself, again, where things are, which cupboards hold what, where the junk drawer is, how to do laundry, how to brew coffee.
I want to walk upstairs, talk to her and comfort her, but I know these quiet moments of hers are few, so I lie there, staring at the painted-sunset orange ceiling. I’m thinking about blocked arteries, constricted blood flow, the brain gasping, drowning. It’s her own body invading; without her consent, she’s taken over.
Trees are social beings. They communicate with each other and across species. Research now indicates that a tree’s memories live in its roots, and when they are dug up to be planted or transported, in essence, they are being lobotomized—they lack the ability to communicate with other trees the way they would growing in a forest. What we’re just starting to understand: they have intricate relationships with mycelium in the soil, a fungus-like bacteria that act as a natural router, connecting the trees to each other, to other plants, communicating needs and wants, helping plants share resources and nutrients.
In the neighborhood I grew up there was a split-level with a withered old oak in the front yard whose knot-holes were filled with cement. Trees with excess water—from lawn sprinklers, from rains—will develop wood rot, decay from the inside out. The homeowners filled the trunk with fresh-mixed cement, leveled it off. One cavity was big enough for me to place my palm along the hardened cement and not touch the tree itself. The cement was cold, and it seemed like such a stark difference to the warmth and character of the old tree’s hearty bark, its waxy leaves. I asked my father: cement can help push the water back out, he said, help the tree stiffen back up. The trees don’t mind, the wood is strong and can take it.
I believed him. Why wouldn’t I?
Soon, though: a storm will rage through with its licking, whipping wind and earth-shaking cracks of thunder. The cement hardened the tree so it can no longer bend with the wind, can no longer tolerate flection of any kind. By morning, it will be snapped in two. The driveway will be littered in split oak branches and concrete blocks and dust, shattered bits of decades’ old bark. Two parts you could never really imagine as a whole, anyway.
A sort of history:
Tools made of metals like copper and bronze allowed humans to advance woodworking techniques. Ancient Egyptians cut and stripped every tree they could find to make levers and sledges to transport titanic limestone blocks. Romans were using timber frame construction on homes and buildings by 50 AD. The first home made only of timber was discovered in Britain; it’s 10,000 years old. In Massachusetts, the Fairbanks House, built in 1641, is the oldest surviving timber-frame home in North America.
It’s 2008 and I’m living in a cheap apartment complex outside of Detroit. I’m in a relationship growing distant by the day; neither of us laugh any more, we barely talk. Instead, we eat takeout over my beaten up coffee table watching reruns of tv shows we’ve seen a hundred times already. The beige paint on the outside of my building is peeling, showing a light blue base coat. It’s springtime and wet here, showers almost every day, wind slapping the roof and cheap siding. Inside, they’ve pasted peel-and-stick wood paneling along the bedroom and living room walls as some sort of placation.
American geochemist Hope Jahren: “A tree’s wood is also its memoir.”
The science of tree rings is called dendrochronology. You can read whole histories, tracing your finger along the inner parts of a tree; first-year growth and seasons with drought or extra rain or scars from forest fires. You can see the effects of air pollution, how it stunts. The wood, then, very much is its story, an account of the world that passed it by.
A cross-section of the Mark Twain tree, a monstrous, 1,341 year-old sequoia cut down by loggers in 1891, showing all the history it had lived through.
One of my favorite dive bars is a place called Stober’s in Lansing, Michigan. It’s dark, there’s never a crowd, and they have tabletop shuffleboard. Every time I'd been there before, I'd play in tournaments with friends, drink too much, yell and scamp around—I'd ignore the silicone beads—salt-like blobs allowing the puck to slide easily down the table, splashed along the wooden planks (usually mahogany, oak, or maple). I’d ignore what was underneath. Having seen Muir Woods, traipsed through it—the only woods that matter to me now, in my head, these proto-woods, their profoundstature, their daunting antiquity, their valiant beauty. Wood is everywhere—so common it’s usually ignored, ring-stained by half-gone beer mugs, slapped with anger and excitement at the outcome of a game.
Trees carved, cut down, transported and shaved and lacquered, played and rested upon.
Even when I was younger, I was painting forests and treescapes, imagining what I might discover there. This, pastel on paper, was from when I was 15.
Maria Popova: “Why is it that when we behold the oldest living trees in the world, primeval awe runs down our spine? We are entwined with trees in an elemental embrace, both biological and symbolic, depending on them for the very air we breathe as well as for our deepest metaphors, millennia in the making.”
Ascension Island is an anomaly: 545 miles from the equator, 1,000 miles from Africa, 1,400 miles from South America, with a population of just over 800. In a single trip, you can see its entirety, scour lava tubes, scale dormant volcanoes, explore lush forests. It takes a week and a half to get there by boat, the most reliable method. A wedding or funeral or even a fish fry brings the whole island together. An island in the middle of nowhere, one of the most isolated settlements in the world, yet it thrives.
In 1836, when the second Beagle voyage landed there, there was a single tree on the whole of Ascension Island. By 1843, botanist Joseph Hooker began a plan of shipping trees like Norfolk pines and eucalyptus and bamboo and banana trees to Ascension to help capture rain and improve the soil. By the 1870s, with all the greengrowth starting to take hold on the highest point of the island, a cloud forest had emerged. Here, trees planted by humans have taken root all over the island; it has become a place that no longer resembles its natural self.
But it’s easy to forget that these trees, this greenery, was planted for us to profit by. Trees could be felled to repair ships and build homes and be burned to charcoal for cooking. So what does manufactured life in this isolated place teach us about everything that lives or has ever lived?
Later, once this terraforming had taken hold, Hooker expressed regret that he ignored native species pushed out by the imported and exotic: “The consequences to the native vegetation of the peak will, I fear, be fatal.”
In a 1743 book called The Axe (Once More) Laid to the Root of the Tree, the anonymous author waxes about the Christian’s duty to assert dominance over the land:
O tremendous Tree, fear now for thy self, though that haft been a Curse to the World, and a terror over the Face of the whole Earth; Thou that haft baffled the Words of the Lord of Hosts himself by thy Treachery; Thou shalt be torn up Root and Branch for thy Pride and Arrogance, and thine immense Riches; doubt it not, for the Workmen are the Princes, the Nobles, and the mighty Men.
Yes, our views have changed; now we understand the interconnectedness of us and Nature, how we affect it, how we must change; we are finally starting to fully understand the intelligence of trees. But we still remove ourselves, often, from remembering these are alive beings. This transmutation gives us less to be remorseful about. It’s not a cow or a pig or a tree, but a commodity. Anyway, they exist for our pleasure, right?
The United States is the second-largest producer of carbon dioxide in the world. Because of our insatiable hunger to tear trees down and to build and build and build, it’s alarming to see how much of the once virgin forest has been eradicated (75% since 1600):
© Copyright US Forest Service
So when does a tree stop becoming a tree and become wood?
In a college philosophy class, the professor asked us a simple-seeming question: When is a pen a pen? Describe it to someone as if they had never heard or seen it before. The class tried and tried, but the professor shot down them all.
“An implement to write with,” someone said.
“If it runs out of ink, is it still a pen?”
Someone else: “A pen is a tool to write with.”
“But could you kill someone with a pen?” Our professor took the cap off a pen he was holding as illustration, touched the tip with his fingertip and feigned being injured. He beamed. “Couldn’t this be a weapon?”
The class, reluctantly, nodded.
A similar thought experiment in an introduction to religion class: if our body were removed, would we still be us?
In my home, there is a girthy oak support beam carved wholly from a tree trunk. There are splits in some places, where you can see inside to the softer interior. From my writing desk (made of particleboard wood), I see a dresser made of oak, the planks of our floorboards, acacia. In the basement storage, a mango wood table we don’t have room for any more.
When I was young, I carved my name into a two-pronged tree in our backyard that looked like a giant slingshot. It was my tree. I used to rest in its crook and look out over the lawn. I didn’t understand that, more than likely, trees can feel pain. That, in their own way, research has shown they have emotional responses to the world. I claimed it as my own to anyone who came over to play. Trees are plodding beings who grow over human generations. They stand tall while our families diminish. All the while, I’m sure of it, that tree moved and talked to me and had insight and felt pain. I just refused to learn its language, is all.
The oldest tree in the world is called Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in California almost 5,000 years old. Bristlecones already look ancient and godly: twisted, stunted reddish-brown trunks with deep fissures, saturated green needles with dark purple female cones. They live on mountaintops, overlooking the world.
All of human civilization, nothing but a blink.
But it’s not just Methuselah. Wherever you are, there’s a tree within reach, I’m sure of it. At the very least, I’m sure you can see one. Outside my window is a sawtooth oak, not native to Nebraska but planted here as ornament. Even still, it is decades old, older than me. I watch throngs of students pass by it every day and not a single one of them stops to notice it. We will all, eventually, be pulverized into dust. It will go on.
Later, I asked my friends about their own gifted elm saplings. None of them had been planted. Most were kept with their rootballs still bagged in plastic, sitting in garages or on back patios with no intentions of putting them in the ground. They wanted money, toys or games, anything but a tree. I’d find out later most of them would be dumped in the garbage or planted carelessly along the sides of their homes that either get too much sun or not enough, forgotten and alone.
Most don’t consider trees. Is it their age? That we can’t understand what it is they’re saying? Their immobility? I wonder why we choose such a narrow view of intelligent life, of living things.
I was sitting in my backyard in my slingshot tree, sucking on the stems of sugar maple leaves I swore tasted like syrup while these same friends peeled bark from trees for fun and plucked sticks whole to whip each other on the arms and kicked up turfs of grass and plucked long grasses by fitsfulls just to toss them back onto the warm black earth. I hid from them that I loved the elm sapling, hid that I would go into my backyard to stroke it gently, to talk to it, to apologize. I knew they’d laugh. I knew they wouldn’t understand the tenderness of greenlife. I made it a point to go into the backyard after school to measure its growth and just be near it. At some point, flush with hormones and a desire to leave home altogether, I stopped. I no longer thought of trees or birds or nature. Like my friends, I wanted everything to have urgency. It was decades before I rediscovered how to slow down and hear their frequencies.
God, how much I missed.
Now, I think about that tree I once carved my initials in and I want to curl up on my floor and cry. I think about my sapling, alone in the dark corner of the back yard, away from other trees. What do their tree rings say about me—am I even mentioned at all?
For therapy, to relax, I encourage my sister to walk outside. Northern Michigan is lush with trees and woods, lakes and beachscapes. She lives near a sprawling cherry orchard. Among the trees, the farmers have set up honeybee hives, selling the dark amber honey at the nearby market, at local grocery stores. They allow her and her family to pick cherries freely (within reason). She, like me, is often lost in thoughts, especially outdoors.
It’s dry now, this late morning. Here, together as siblings, the hot wind smells fruity, tangible. I touch her shoulder on occasion, offer a warm smile and nod. These small comforts. We walk between the cherry trees, touching leaves, the bark. We don’t say anything. This opulent greenness speaks for us.