I used to talk to trees

gary-christmas-1I used to talk to trees. I did. I remember. They are there towering above me as I look up. Straight up into sky and branches. I can draw memory of those immense straight trunked pines slowly swaying in the wind. I was only three or four years old, and yet sixty years later I still remember. They stood in front of the immigrant favela style farm house my maternal grandparents had lived in for decades until just before my birth. The soil on this land was a dull grey mixture of sand and dusty sediment that was little good for growing crops, though fine for the needs of the local wild plants. It was perhaps ok to cut as an unreliable hay crop, but not for vegetables or for the prized potatoes that grew only miles away in the lush black “muck” fields of Arenac county. This farm did not have the natural luxury of the rich topsoil necessary for success. The tiny farm upon which my Polish maternal grandparents tried to “make a go of it” never prospered and with their deaths became the vacation cottage of our extended family.

While no cash crops grew successfully, the two large pine trees in the front of the old house were quite at home rooted in that sandy soil. The mix of dirt and sand held enough nutrients for them to thrive actually. White or red pine, I do not remember which. I did not differentiate as a child. It was not what was important. What I remember is their height, their majesty and their voices.

We would drive to the farm from Detroit, spending many hours on two lane roads. This was before the freeways came, so travel took us through the center of small towns and villages. We glimpsed another way of life in these places. One different from that in the blue collar “downriver” suburbs of Detroit where working class families like ours lived all but divorced from “nature.”

My grandparents were dead. The last of them, my maternal grandmother died during my mother’s pregnancy prior to my birth. Grandmother died of gangrene as a complication of her untreated diabetes after a cow stepped on her foot. Comprehending such a death proved impossible for me as a child. In grade school I remember feeling ashamed to tell anyone my grandmother died because a cow stepped on her foot. Such events didn’t still happen in the 1950’s did they? It seemed like a peasant death from the Medieval Poland to me. How the stress of my grandmother’s decline and death effected my mother, and therefore my development in-utero, I will never really know. What I know now is that we appear all to be very sensitive to the stress hormones coursing through our mother’s body as our brains slowly develop and wire for action over the many months of pregnancy. Epigenetics suggests many questions.

It was not only grandmother’s death that caused my mother’s stress. She would tell me years later, that some of her friends and family members were very disapproving of the fact she was pregnant with me. As it was, at the time of my conception she and my father already had three children. The youngest of those three was a brother who was 12 years old at the time of my birth. The disapproving chorus asked, “how could she be having more children?” Of course as staunch Polish Catholics, not having more children would likely in my parent’s minds damn them to hell’s fire for eternity. The “sin” was simply the use of birth control. It was a dilemma my parents negotiated in their own way. Several “friendships” were lost and family relationships strained in relation to my conception and birth.

There were other perspectives. In the eyes of my mother, two older sisters and two childless aunts, I came into the world as an unexpected gift from the other realm. Three and a half years later to be followed by one, then another younger brother. A second family of “three” separated by 12 years from the first. My two older sisters were in their mid-to late teens when I was born. We lived with my maiden aunt Wanda. My godparents were my aunt and uncle Cioc and John, my mother’s brother. Neither Wanda or Cioc and John had children of their own, though they quite adored kids. I tell you this because I was met by more love and affection and appreciation than any tiny being has any right to expect birthed into this realm of adults and their various forms of madness. I was held, I was rocked to sleep, I was the center of attention and love. I was given a very good start.

My father held a job for thirty years at a Detroit steel mill, and life in a working class neighborhood in Detroit felt far removed from nature. Still we travelled north several times each summer to the little farmhouse and to the two immense pine trees in its front yard. Uncountable trips over many years have left many memories. It is the two pines from my earliest memories that I now recall and revel in. Their presence remains deep in my consciousness. I can still feel the sense of wonder that moved me so deeply as a very small child. Their gentle voices persist even today, long after I have been socialized to deny such voices can possibly exist. They are “only trees” after all.

These early memories are like brief video clips combined with silent snapshots into a collage of sorts. I can see myself under those trees, looking up in awe at their enormous trunks, huge branches and bunches of long thin needles as they swayed in response to warm summer breezes.

I was tiny. Three, perhaps at most four years old. They were enormous. I was small vulnerable and prone to falls, scrapes and tears. They were solid, strong and seemingly immovable. I recall sitting beneath their branches, looking up, into their endless height, in absolute awe and wonder. It was quite magical. They spoke quietly to me with each breeze. Their words formed by a gentle movement of needles touching each other. Sometimes the voices were stronger, more powerful and insistent. It depended upon the wind.

I felt something in their presence that was vibrantly alive. They were alive. I was alive. And I was in their presence. We were alive “together.” I sat at their trunk base, atop their shallow roots, looking up. Always looking up. They held me. How do I explain? They held me with the same love and patience and kindness that my older sisters, and my aunts, and my mother held me. I was safe with them. They were there for me, both reassuring me and inspiring me with their strength and beauty. I loved to listen to their voices in the breeze.

I would ask my mother to let me go sit outside at the foot of the trees. To let me commune with my friends and feel safe in their presence. For one summer this happened, and maybe some of the next. Then I was told it wasn’t “safe” for me to be alone in front of the old house, so close to the gravel road that strangers might traverse. My safety would be unknown to my family inside I was told. It wasn’t safe anymore for me to be alone with just these two trees.

I still remember the sense of loss. I spoke to the trees in my limited three and four year old way of speaking. I spoke out loud at times. I spoke silently in my mind at other times. I told them how beautiful they were and how much I liked being with them. The trees knew. I did not have to say the words. They knew I loved and respected them, and considered them my friends. Perhaps they felt their own sadness when I could no longer come out on my own.

But there was more as I recall. It perplexed the adults. It perhaps seemed strange that this little boy was so deeply enamored of these two old pine trees. What could he possibly find so fascinating about them? Why would he choose to sit near them, under them, gazing up and appearing lost in some reverie beyond adult understanding? Looking back, I think it unnerved them a bit. The adults that is. They all loved and respected “nature” but what I as a tiny being was experiencing didn’t fit the boundaries of their adult understanding. I was “in” nature, I was “part of” nature, I was in relationship “to” and “with” these trees. I loved them and felt they loved me in return. I could spend hours with them, content, happy, and feeling very “safe.” How could adults understand this? It simply did not fit their adult conception of “nature.”

And so the message I “heard,” the message I internalized was that there was something “not right” about loving these trees the way I did. There was something “peculiar” about loving them, talking to them, feeling such deep kinship with them. And “growing up” meant leaving them, these two pine trees, my friends, behind. Growing up meant outgrowing them somehow. I felt a sense of loss, guilt and sadness that I was no longer visiting. As if I was letting them down. Failing to reciprocate the love and caring they had shown me. I felt as if I committed a betrayal of sorts. My emotions were confused and convoluted.

Things change rapidly when one is so tiny, and summers are so very far removed from one another. The next summer came, and I was not so drawn to the two pines. I did not yearn for their rustling branches and needles though I recognized their presence. I did not look forward to sitting at the base of their trunks content to gaze up at them in awe. I was “growing up,” and “big boys” don’t talk to trees. Neither do they idolize them. No, big boys learn to pump water at the well, or shoot the 22 rifle, or the bow and arrow, or learn to fish. They do not sit on the ground and commune with two old pine trees.

And so during the coming years I became a big boy, and I did big boy things, and I forgot the trees, and forgot the wonder of knowing I was a part of them and they were part of me. I learned “not knowing” in the way adults or big boys learn not to know. I lost knowing the way a three year old knows in every cell of his body that he is a part of it all. Part of everything. As I look back now I realize that I was born “knowing” and had to “learn” to “not know” anymore. I had to learn this because to be a big boy, and then a grown up, I had to learn to feel not part of, or connection too the natural world, but disconnection. I had to learn that such big trees were “worth” money and could and should be cut down someday to “make money.” At three years of age the cutting of these two trees would have broken my heart, shattered the reality of my relationship to and love I felt for these two beautiful beings. As a big boy I learned such sentiments were not “manly” and showed a “softness” found contemptible by true “manly men.” To be a manly man I had to kill these tree’s spirits in my own heart. I had to reject their friendship. I had to say no to their beautiful whispers and kind words of kinship and love and connection. I found all of this profoundly confusing. I learned that this process of losing our rooting in nature is called in Western societies – “growing up.”

I loved the natural world. My parents both taught me to love and appreciate the frogs and the birds, the deer and fishes, the flowers and the trees, but also to stop seeing them as “part of me, and me as part of them.” I could love them, but I could not “be” them, I could not be part of and with them in communion, in the circle, in wholeness. In our “culture,” that would not be the adult way of being in nature and of loving nature. Distance was required. Demanded.

I see now how loving and caring of the natural world my parents actually were compared to the “norm” of the manly men, and their world of “progress.” Perhaps my love of these two pine trees, my relationship with them, scared them and the other adults who were visiting at the old farm. Perhaps they felt my heart would be too open, to loving of this earth that the men of progress were constantly cutting, and damming, and clearing to graze cattle and plant fields, and testing their nuclear weapons on. Perhaps they could see that my love of those trees and of the circle and the natural world would lead to a broken heart as I watched helpless the great industry of the esteemed men of progress. Perhaps they separated me from my trees to protect me from this heart break, this harsh reality that even they questioned in their own hearts and in their most candid moments.

I recall with great clarity another related experience from early childhood. I am walking along the concrete sidewalk to my elementary school in a working class Detroit suburb. I am five or six years old at most. We have recently come back from the farm, the woods, the water, the frogs, the birds and the fishes. I am filled with them. They swim and fly in my five year old heart as if in the water and in the air around me. They are whole and real and part of me. They sing spirit.

I tread the sidewalk and look at one green flat barren lawn after another green flat barren lawn. I cross one paved street corner after another paved street corner. I hear no frogs. I see no hawks or deer. I see only the work of the manly men. Cleanly cut lawns. House after house, lawn after lawn, street after street of the same empty man made version of the world. It is an imitation world. A replacement world. My small five year old heart was literally incredulous and in pain. “Where are the frogs?!” “What have they done with the frogs!?” “Why would they do this to the world?”

I walk on toward school and my “education,” emotionally and intellectually consumed in my utter agitation at what I see. I am angry and confused. I cannot believe the heartlessness of the manly men. I cannot believe the idiocy of the men of progress. I cannot believe what they have done. Yet, somehow I know I have been given strength and understanding by those two pine trees who took time to speak with me, who held me. I know I will not betray them, that I will stand with those pine trees in opposition to and defiance of the men of progress. I will stand with every cell of my body, with its every loving heartbeat for the world, and with all the powers of my mind connected to all mind in all time. I was taught to love the natural world by two old and wise pine trees. They have loved me, I have loved them, and they have taught me what the modern world wishes me to forget. Yet I cannot forget.

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