Wednesday, March 6, 2019

By the Grace of Trees

This morning the cardinals filled our woods with full-hearted song. Even more than Mrs. Muske’s daffodils, the chorus of this particular bird suggests that spring is stirring, once again. Stuttering its way to us, interspersed with icy blasts.

We were relieved to hear the redbirds. Last year, their numbers seemed  greatly reduced, and we were reminded of the feeling we had during the recent drouth. It was a pressure of sorrow, of ill-being, as we walked through the woods, or drove past the fields of graying grass and disappearing livestock.

We were surprised by how physical it felt.

And despite subsequent rains, the understory of briars, yaupon and young trees has never recovered. A few years ago we couldn’t see through the woods around our tank. Now we can, and it makes our admittedly small property seem much smaller. Makes us feel somewhat precarious, and isolated.

Over the last two years, we’ve seen many fewer of our usual animals, as well—rabbits, squirrels, coyotes, raccoons, snakes, and so on; many fewer insects—bees, dragonflies, butterflies, even wasps and dirt daubers.

We hoped part of the reason might be our resident red-shouldered hawk and barred owl, pursuing their living in the natural cycle of wild things. An animal must eat, after all.

We must.

We don’t like to think of ourselves as part of the animal world. Even less do we desire to consider ourselves part of the plant world. Nature is becoming so alien to our increasingly technical, virtual lives that we barely notice it.

Yet when nature throbs in pain, as it does during a drouth, we feel it in our deepest self.

According to a remarkable book I read recently--The Overstory, by Richard Powers--we humans share a quarter of our genes with trees. We are connected to these beings we barely notice from the car window. We don’t realize how they communicate because they act so slowly and use far older conveyances of meaning than our words and electronic digits. Smell, for instance, by which our bodies register, without our conscious knowledge, the chemical molecules the trees exude. Walking in one of the few dense forests left, we feel good, and it’s because of the chemicals the trees exhale, along with oxygen.

We know we are dependent on trees for our breath. But we are so focused on ourselves that we destroy them without thought. Replace them with cut lumber, concrete, metal, polymers and plastics casually, calling it progress.

We are so alienated from nature that we think of it as a resource, to be exploited for our use. It never occurs to us that nature is alive, much larger and more powerful than we are. And that we exist, fundamentally, at its pleasure. 

For most of our lives, the perceptions that allow this myopia, have trended narrowly, with ourselves at the center. Something very interesting happens to the mind, however, as we grow old.

Time, speeding up, lifts us away from the personal focus of middle-aged responsibility and yearnings. We feel ourselves rising to a perspective from which we can see our lives in context. We note the ways in which our surroundings have changed, and we perceive clearly our human role in those changes, good and bad.

We register scientific advances in medicine, for example; and also the advent of nuclear bombs, the explosive growth of urban sprawl and plastic garbage, the destruction of old growth and rain forests.

But this larger, more accurate and valuable understanding comes at the precise time our children, working toward the next project, profit report or paycheck, begin to dismiss us as “out of touch.”

It may be the greatest of all human ironies. Because never before have we been so “in touch,” with reality. (Underscoring that irony, our grandchildren, as yet unsullied by the machine of modern life, come closer to understanding than do their parents.)

And, if we are honest with ourselves, that reality tells us that, for our species to survive—for the earth to have a chance of remaining hospitable to us—we must find a way to transmit wisdom beyond the limitations of our individual human lifespan.

In business, technology, philosophy; in science and politics; in family, too, the creativity and energy of youth must join with the perspective of age, instead of ignoring it. Knowledge must flow in both directions.

As older cultures have perceived, the wisdom of elders is a real thing, and it can be used to save us, if given half a chance.

In a slightly different form, this post appeared as my column for February in the Fayette County Record.

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