A passing train howls in the distance. A cool breeze brushes up against my face, and the full moon reflects the sun’s light toward the half-darkened earth. As I scan the evening sky, I deeply inhale the brisk autumn air and turn my gaze fondly upon my silent friend, the backyard tree, which slowly sways, patiently awaiting the fullness of the season.
Ever since I arrived at this little corner of the world, I have loved to stand near this immense, living, arboreal being, a genetically and evolutionary distant cousin with whom I feel great kinship. There are those who might say that kinship with a tree is a one-sided arrangement, but they would not find it so if they simply took the time to get acquainted.
Humanity has recently begun to search the distant cosmos for signs of other intelligent life, and yet we have not truly and completely absorbed the varieties of abundant life all around us. William Blake suggested we might be able to see the world in a grain of sand if we looked at it the right way. Over the years, after spending many happy hours in silent appreciation, I have grown to love the backyard tree, and while there hasn’t been any overt communication, our nonverbal exchanges–silent conversations as I like to call them–have been eminently satisfying for me. Since it continues to come back to life in the spring every year, I assume that we are on good terms. The only time I really worry is when it comes time to chop something off it.
Even though I know that it is ultimately for the overall health of the tree to occasionally trim its branches, I am always reluctant to shorten the beautiful outstretched limbs, still full and green, or blazing with autumn colors, or even bare in the heart of winter, since then the branches look more like outstretched hands, waving blissfully in the winter sky. Many landscaping experts recommend periodic trimming, but there’s just some kind of curious mental block that makes me feel terrible about lopping off a limb or removing anything that is still colorful and alive. I’m even reluctant to cut the grass that surrounds the tree. Yes, it looks much neater when kept trimmed, but is how it looks more important than its own natural growth? A lot depends on how you view the living organisms of the world.
Is a tree, even my familiar backyard tree, like a person? Well, not exactly. Our similarities as organisms, particularly in outward appearance and function, appear on the surface to be few in number, but there are certain essential qualities which, if examined closely, reveal some wonderful resemblances. Science has provided us with much greater knowledge regarding life on earth, and we now know that the proteins involved with cell chemistry and the molecules of DNA which carry hereditary information are virtually identical in every plant and animal. The late Carl Sagan, in his popular TV series, “Cosmos,” put it this way:
“We human beings don’t look very much like a tree. We certainly view the world differently than a tree does. But down deep, at the molecular heart of life, we are essentially identical to trees.”
Beyond these fundamental similarities on the molecular level, our own development from the microscopic union of cells to our formidably intricate structure as a human being, corresponds to the development of a tree from seedling to full-grown tree. We take in nutrients from the food we eat and process them to become bones and flesh, while a tree takes in nutrients from the soil and turns them into limbs and leaves. We distribute oxygen and blood throughout our bodies by a circulatory system, taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide by breathing. Trees, in a contrasting but complementary process, take in carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis expel oxygen, circulating food and moisture throughout the web of limbs to the tiniest leaf. Given the ideal environment and nurtured by mutually advantageous circumstances, both trees and humans will inevitably flourish.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the famous naturalist and author, wrote that “All natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable.” When we contemplate Emerson’s words, we begin to see our explicit connection to everything that lives and the importance of preserving our earthly environment.
For me, the development of my awareness of kinship with every living entity explains well why I so love walking in the woods or across fields and meadows, or even sitting contentedly on the back porch on a cool autumn evening, contemplating and communicating with the backyard tree.
____________________ A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
____________________ Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
____________________ A tree that looks at God all day,
____________________ And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
____________________ A tree that may in summer wear
____________________ A nest of robins in her hair;
____________________ Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
____________________ Who intimately lives with rain.
____________________ Poems are made by fools like me,
____________________ But only God can make a tree.”
____________________ – Joyce Kilmer, 1886-1918, Trees