The lost language of the trees



I used to talk to plants. Some of my dearest friends were trees. I held long conversations with the grass in my backyard; dug deep with the pines trees that dominated the forests of my overnight camp. I listened for hours to the intricate patterns of moss and lichens that clung to the nooks and crevices of the rock-face behind my cabin. Looking closely, I could understand the contours of their miniature hills and valleys, and trace their pathways with my eyes. I dreamed of being small enough to wander those tiny byways myself. I loved the rock, too, and caressed the sparkling texture of its multi-colored veins, marveling at the changes it had lived through during its many millions of years.

I exchanged greetings with with wild herbs, brushing against them to release the response of their sweet scent, communicating their rightness with the world. I had a close friend who was a mulberry tree; we shared secrets and sweet berries while I spent hours high up in her branches. We visited together long after her berry season was over. Multi-colored mushrooms poked their funny heads above the soil to say hello, hinting mischievously of their massive presence entangled with the plant roots and soil beneath my feet. I admit my eyes and ears were too coarse to befriend the most numerous beings of all: the microbes, bacteria and fungi. But I appreciated their efforts nonetheless, and marveled at their beautiful forms in photos and on microscope slides.

800px-Armadillidium_vulgare_001I talked to the insects, too. I asked the ants where they were going, so focused and intent. Down on my knees, my schoolbag forgotten on the sidewalk, I would follow them and learn their secrets. About the dead beetle feast they had discovered in the grass, or the sticky bonanza of piece of candy dropped by the curb. Earthworms were my friends too, along with the pill bugs, or roly-polys, who curled up when I lifted the rock roof off their home. With patience, I could coax them out of hiding to wander across my palm. Millipedes did the same. (Not centipedes, however. They disappeared quickly when the light appeared, and their impressive pincers demanded deference and respect). I kept company with bumblebees, sharing the joy of their gathering, as they conversed with the heart of a flower in a low, steady hum. I had other animal buddies. Frogs were close companions; I eavesdropped on the full-throated debates of big bulls and the sharp trilling repartee of spring peepers and leopards. Choruses of cicadas and crickets shared their passion with me every summer night. Deer were my friends, from a respectful distance, as were the mice and rabbits, raccoons and opossum who shared the forests with me summer after summer. The fish in the lakes flashed their silver sides in greeting. Turtles lifted their heads to nod a lazy greeting; snakes left their s-shaped calligraphy in the dust where I passed.

I still talk to the plants and the bugs. Sometimes. I walk barefoot in the grass, and sit in the garden. I run my bare hands through the soil, reveling in its moist richness. I stand on the porch watching the honeybees go about their work. Just standing among them as they fly to and fro, coming and going from myriad errands. Some tasks are obvious from the bulging pollen pouches on their legs; others deeply mysterious but not doubt equally important to their sisters. I can’t understand them as well as I did when I was younger, but I still enjoy their presence. I hope they like mine. I am grateful that they at least tolerate it. Honey-bee-pollen-basket

We’ve lost touch – the moss and bees, frogs, mice, and flowers I knew so well. Occasionally, I try to reach out to them. But there are so many distractions in the human world. So many thing, so many ideas, so much to do. The world of my earliest companions is more focused on being. Sure they get a lot done in a day – far more than a human could imagine. Relative to her size, a honeybee covers more ground in her short lifetime than even the most dedicated frequent flyer. A simple dandelion or milkweed is the very definition of productive, performing the fundamental task of converting the raw energy of the sun. With patience and might, plants create the food and structure that supports nearly every other living thing on Earth. And they do it so beautifully! Not content to just get the job done, they entice and attract, interacting with their neighbors through form, scent, taste, and a riot of color. I try to read their messages. When I have time. When I can slow down enough to shape my thoughts into our common language. The universal tongue. It’s not the voice of advertisements or TV, cars or computers. The babble of social media has nothing in common with your average brook.

Like a half-forgotten lullaby, words come to me, but it takes more effort these days. I touch the lavender and thyme when I walk, and tune in their replies, delivered in richly scented voices. The grass communicates in sign with the soles of my feet and the soil takes my hand with its coolness. But my comprehension has declined. The bees still chatter while they work and sometimes I get a glimpse of their intricate informative dances, but I have no clue of what they’re saying. The mulberries trees in my adult life grew from saplings to majestic trees before my eyes. But when they failed to produce much fruit this year, and their leaves were spotted with yellow, I could only watch with growing dismay, unable to interpret their suffering. The Eastern swallowtails I nurtured through the winter just a few years ago have not left their progeny among the dill and fennel I planted for them, nor have the monarchs returned to their milkweed patch. Why? They aren’t saying. A wood mouse popped out of my garden for a quick hello while I was sowing sweet potatoes, and I waved to him or his cousin who foraged for drops of honey among my empty bee boxes. But the one I found limping across my walkway this morning couldn’t tell me where the pain was or what I could do to offer comfort.640px-Apodemus_sylvaticus_(Sardinia) (1)

I have forgotten that language, the words that helped me feel at one with the world. Although their sounds are all around me, the meanings of the rustles and the chirps and the hums are lost. The beeps I respond to these days are electric and insistent. The rumblings speak of trains and trucks, not distant storms. I walk down the sidewalk and feel the concrete distance between me and the Earth, but I don’t stop to check for ant trails or bugs. Injured birds and mammals used to find succor in my home – now I look away, ashamed of my ignorance of their needs and unwilling to risk the pain of watching them die because of my incompetence.

My distance. My disconnect. So much of it comes down to fear. Instead of awe, reverence, and respect, I relate to the world through a deep sense of inadequacy. Shame. Fear. Fear of injury. Fear of disease. Fear of losing myself in the wilderness. (As if losing oneself wasn’t the goal of 99% of human busyness and addiction). Fear of loneliness and disconnect from the billions of living and non-living beings who are around me at every moment. And fear of pain. Not the pain of injury or a sting, although I’d gotten plenty of those. A deeper pain. A more existential pain.

Years ago, at a construction site in Northwest Washington DC, I saw a metal behemoth grab a mature tree around the trunk and yank – I can still hear the terrible crack when its hundred year old back was broken. How many cracks can appear before you tune them out? How many fields can you see torn up for luxury housing? How many skies darkened with pollution? How many rivers clogged with poison and beaches washed away by rising seas before you wall off your heart to keep from crying every time you read of another dying species, or step out your front door and confront the scores of injuries that one clever but not-so-bright animal has inflicted on all the others?

I want to go back. To the woods, to the wilds, to the rivers, and the streams. Not only to the ones of my youth, but those in the here and now, that are part of the intertwined ecosystem I live in today. I need to go back. Because of my fear. In spite of my pain. Maybe my old friends will help me deal with my confusion. Maybe they can teach me to embrace my pain and heal, the way a mighty tree does after a lightning strike. For a have been struck – dumb, blind – and I need to learn how to go on, proud and strong. I pray it’s not too late. I pray that they will welcome me back, this wayward, destructive, ignorant ape who has brought so much harm. I miss my home among the trees. I miss all my friends and wish desperately to catch up. To chat once again with the insects, to learn ridiculous, truths from the frogs, garner the essential knowledge of the rocks and leaves.

I just need to learn the words again. Not a secret code – not at all – but the common tongue of all things who share this brilliant beautiful green and blue world. The world that speaks to us all in so many ways. Every. Single. Moment. If we can only remember how to listen again.



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