On September 28th, I returned home after 10 days in the woods.
Four of those days and nights I spent on a solo fast, with a tarp, a journal, water, and not much else. Ostensibly, I spent most of that time doing a lot of nothing, but I also spent a fair amount of time talking out loud.
“Speak out loud,” our guides encouraged us. “It’s okay to think, and to feel anxious, but when you express those feelings aloud, you immediately get out of your own head and into the world around you.” Speech serves as a powerful bond between our inner world and our environment. Where I come from, talking to “inanimate” objects, like trees, is only marginally more acceptable than masturbating in public, so I never had much practice.
But it’s true: when we put our thoughts into sound, into vibration, and into external space, we immediately gain a new perspective on them. We can do this in conversation with other human beings; however, trees make unparalleled listeners for several reasons.
Trees will never talk back. Trees will offer you a mirror of your words utterly free of judgment. Trees have etched hundreds of years of wisdom into the ridges of their faces, and they will not mind if you run your fingers along them.
So, I gave it a try. “Hi, Tree,” I said timidly. I had found the perfect sitting tree. Split close to the ground, and angled just so, I could rest my back comfortably against one trunk while propping my feet against the other. The rough, grooved bark pressed firmly into my shoulders, and yellow sunlight filtered through a canopy of leaves to dust my face and hands.
I could not have wished for a more peaceful resting place.
“Hi, Tree,” I said again. “I don’t know why I’m here.” And I poured the entirety of my doubt, my loneliness and my uncertainty into that bottomless receptacle of Wood and Time and Knowledge. When a tree falls in the forest, what a terrible sound it must make—the seal on its heart cracked open, all the sorrows and questions, and joys, too, that it has witnessed must spill out.
The tree did not once interrupt me. It did not tell me everything was okay, nor did it tell me everything was all wrong. It did not tell me anything at all. It accepted my words with a compassion we humans could only aspire to—with an exquisite softness surprising in a substance of such durability. It accepted me with an embrace full of the patience wrought by a very long life. It lifted my words, one by one, into the folds of its experience.
There, my thoughts found rest and I found lightness.
Talking to trees, I suspect, is like touch and love and magic. That is, it is an ancient, inborn knowledge, which thousands of years of socialization have sought to eliminate. But, like touch and love and magic, somehow this knowing stubbornly clings to our bones. It refuses to leave. To access it, we just need to be willing to feel a little bit crazy at first.
If you have never said “Hello” to a tree, you will most likely feel rather sheepish about it the first time you try.
You may want to find a place away from other people to experiment, since, after all, the point is to have an outlet for expression free from judgment. Your local park or running trail probably isn’t that place. Seek a space free of human rationality; the trees will forgive your clumsiness and embarrassment.
You may discover that your anger, your complaints and your worries suddenly seem horribly petty against the measuring stick of centuries. Fiercely repressed emotions might bubble to the surface, unbidden and unexpected. Perhaps you will be inclined to wax philosophical on the meaning of life (though, undoubtedly, the tree will know more than you), or perhaps you will simply wish to talk about your day.
A sense of weightlessness might fill the space that opens when you pour your heaviness into a tree’s furrows.
Talking to trees is not a rational endeavor. It can feel silly and awkward and pointless, but it can also feel extraordinary and full of beauty.
Humor me, and give it five minutes of your time before passing judgment. Allow yourself just five minutes to rest in the inexplicably soft embrace of living Time. Be witnessed by a Being that will accept you without questions. Then form an opinion.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Renée Picard
Photos: courtesy of the author