Really Seeing Trees


I’ve ordered my Americano. The radio is on the music of the 70s station and so I will be quietly reminded of the tonal quality of my teen years. “You’ve got to hide your love away …” The Beatles were big back then. I sit down, get comfortable … and I watch. Small tables with two or more people gathered ‘round … deep in conversation. Students surfing the web or posting on Facebook while another is absorbed in the latest fiction. Two senior men with newspapers spread wide open between their hands, absorbing all that a comparatively small few have decreed as worth knowing on this particular day. Another senior sits at the next table, two day stubble, silver hair unfurling from his Tilley hat, his lean legs crossed and sporting khaki trousers, liver spotted hands resting, one on the table, the other on his thigh. These hands have done many a thing in their seventy some years, some good, some not so good … many stories are held within the broad palms and slender fingers. He reads Times magazine as he takes an occasional sip from his coffee cup. Like the newspaper there’s just enough in those scant pages to carry on a conversation and impress others on the up to date goings on in finance, politics and other worldly affairs. It’s the kind of enviable knowledge that trumps in this western world. “I am a rock. I am an island.”  So you say Simon and Garfunkel. “I've built walls, a fortress deep and mighty that none may penetrate. I have no need of friendship; friendship causes pain. It's laughter and it's loving I disdain.”

I breathe a long sigh for how alone I feel at times. I think back to the walk only fifteen minutes ago that brought me here. I was struck with a realization … it’s hard to see the trees with their freshly vibrant green leaves swaying in the wind. I mean it’s hard to really and truly see them. Not through the eyes of a scientist or a developer … that’s easy … but to see them rather through the eyes of a lover, poet or artist which is the only way to truly see anything in its fullness and vitality. I have to open my schooled mind beyond its linear lessons and instead use eyes that call me to bow deeply and appreciatively before such incredible beauty. It’s striking how much overwhelming beauty there is in a tree. How much communion. The solid rootedness. The textured bark, rough yet somehow soft as well. To touch a tree is to feel the blood in your veins. It is to feel your mother’s hand gently brushing a strand of hair from your forehead while her love for you holds you close to her.  I loved my mother dearly. I was fortunate to have such a mother. Her touch. Her hands. My mother’s hands that I have not seen in over 33 years … right there in that beautiful tree before me that is so hard to see … hard to see only because of the cars, the bicycles, the pedestrians …. all busily heading somewhere. And because of the mind that has been trained to value a certain flavour of productivity that is antithetical to innocence and wonderment. There is constant movement on the street and in the corridors of the mind, the grey neural pathways, that makes true seeing difficult. It’s sad but true … many people will never actually see this tree. They will walk right by. And Phil Collins voice beckons, “I will follow you, will you follow me. All the days and nights that we know will be. I will stay with you, will you stay with me. Just one single tear in each passing year...”  Mother I remember you.

Suddenly I wonder …  what was it like to inhabit this very land 300 years ago? What was it like? The people of this land, the Coast Salish, living in their longhouses and canoes, stories of salmon and raven whispering through the ocean and trees. Proud people with long black braids, weathered hands that knew hunting, fishing, gathering and weaving bark and wildgrass for wear and beauty. I can feel the echo of those days. Right here, right now. I feel the echo as I write and sip from my cup. “Listen to the wind blow. Watch the sun rise. Run in the shadows. Damn your love. Damn your lies. I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.” Fleetwood Mac, so very fitting. Chief Seattle said the same thing did he not? Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.

And what was it like I wonder, to have people with pale white skin and wearing long navy coats with rifles slung over their shoulders show up without invitation? Speaking the blunting language, announcing themselves with a new order of things and walking through the front door without knocking? What was it like when they set up camp and began to bargain for this land so that Starbucks and Serious Coffee could set up shop to sell their beverages in order to pay the landlord and report their earnings to the tax collectors and make the monthly payments for the Honda Acura and buy Guess clothing and contribute to their RRSPs? Had I been a child of one of those white men and witnessed with my own eyes the grand takeover that took place, and had I had a voice and means to articulate, would I not have started to scream aloud, to sob from the belly of the earth and plead that we listen to the people who had never known any other land? Would I not have fallen to my knees? Unto the body of our life giving mother? I am beginning to remember how it all happened. My body knows the story well because the past is not what we think. “When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, oh it was beautiful, magical. And all the birds in the trees, well they'd be singing so happily, joyfully, playfully watching me. But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical. And they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical. I know it sounds absurd. Please tell me who I am.”  Supertramp … these very same words live in me as well … and I know this much … that I need to know the history of my people to know who I am and that the past is not a throw away thing anymore than the cardboard cups from this coffee shop are. Still we throw all manner of things including our ancestors into the sleek ebony corner bins with silver swinging mouths thinking that they are truly gone. “Teach your children well, their father’s hell will slowly go by. Teach your parents well. Their children’s hell will slowly go by.”  Thank you Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

So I have begun to pray. And one thing I pray for is relief from the kind of self-loathing that the western mind inflicts upon itself when catching a glimpse into the truth. As this imprisoned mind skillfully barricades itself from the debilitating guilt that is a special feature of  the remnants of puritanical thinking, so does the truth remain but an annoying and persistent unwanted guest. Still the truth has a way of asserting itself over time. Perhaps we would do well to remember the holy man who hung from a cross a long time ago and said, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Because on the day when we finally begin to clearly see … when we begin to see the intricate weave between what has been done with these hands of ours and the suffering that has followed, will we do what needs doing? Will we recognize the futility of self-recrimination and instead forgive ourselves and our lineage and begin to live as if our choices are of real consequence? I don’t know how we'll get there. But I have an inkling … I have an inkling that now is the time for storytelling around the campfire, remembering our ancestors, recalling their fears and dreams and holding each other through the vast and warm flow of tears. Now is the time for seeing trees. Really seeing them. This is my prayer. 

Addendum: I wrote this in June 2011. Since that time, the beautiful Ash tree that I photographed has been cut down. And so this is being reposted In Memorium.