I touch trees, as others might stroke the fenders of automobiles or finger silk fabrics or fondle cats. Trees do not purr, do not flatter, do not inspire a craving for ownership or power. They stand their ground, immune to merely human urges. Saplings yield under the weight of a hand and then spring back when the hand lifts away, but mature trees accept one’s touch without so much as a shiver. While I am drawn to all ages and kinds, from maple sprouts barely tall enough to hold their leaves off the ground to towering sequoias with their crowns wreathed in fog, I am especially drawn to the ancient, battered ones, the survivors.
Recently, I spent a week in the company of ancient trees in British Columbia- Canada. The trees are hardwoods—maples and beeches and oaks, hickories and sycamores—and few are allowed to grow for as long as a century without being felled by ax or saw. Here, the ruling trees are Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars, and Pacific yews, the oldest of them ranging in age from five hundred to eight hundred years, veterans of countless fires, windstorms, landslides, insect infestations, and floods.
On the first morning of my stay, I follow a trail through moist bottomland toward Lookout Creek, where I plan to spend half an hour or so in meditation. The morning fog is thick, so the treetops merge with gray sky. Condensation drips from every needle and leaf. My breath steams. Lime-green lichens, some as long as a horse’s tail, dangle from branches. Set off against the somber greens and browns of the conifers, the yellow and red leaves of vine maples, bigleaf maples, and dogwoods appear luminous in spite of the damp. Shelf fungi jut from the sides of old stumps like tiny balconies, and hemlock sprigs glisten atop nurse logs. The undergrowth is as dense as a winter pelt.
Along the way, I reach out to brush my fingers over dozens of big trees, but I keep moving, intent on my destination. Then I come upon a Douglas fir whose massive trunk, perhaps four feet in diameter at chest height, is surrounded by scaffolding, which provides a stage for rope-climbing by scientists and visiting schoolchildren. Something about this tree—its patience, its generosity, its dignity—stops me. I place my palms and forehead against the furrowed, moss-covered bark, and rest there for a spell. Gradually the agitation of travel seeps out of me and calm seeps in. Only after I stand back and open my eyes, and notice how the fog has begun to burn off, do I realize that my contact with this great tree must have lasted fifteen or twenty minutes.
EACH MORNING at first light I repeat the journey to Lookout Creek, and each time I stop along the way to embrace the same giant Douglas fir, which smells faintly of moist earth. I wear no watch. I do not hurry. I stay with the tree until it lets me go.
When at length I lean away, I touch my forehead and feel the rough imprint of the bark. I stare up the trunk and spy dawn sky fretted by branches. Perspective makes the tops of the surrounding, smaller trees appear to lean toward this giant one, as if conferring. The cinnamon-colored bark is like a rugged landscape in miniature, with flat ridges separated by deep fissures. Here and there among the fissures, spider webs span the gaps. The plates are furred with moss. A skirt of sloughed bark and fallen needles encircles the base of the trunk. Even in the absence of wind, dry needles the color of old pennies rain steadily down, ticking against my jacket.
I don’t imagine that my visits mean anything to the Douglas fir. I realize it’s nonsensical to speak of a tree as patient or generous or dignified merely because it stands there while researchers and children clamber up ropes into its highest limbs. But how can I know a tree’s inwardness? Certainly there is intelligence here, and in the forest as a whole, if by that word we mean the capacity for exchanging information and responding appropriately to circumstances. How does a tree’s intelligence compare with ours? What can we learn from it? And why, out of the many giants thriving here, does this one repeatedly draw me to an embrace?
The only intelligence I can examine directly is my own and, indirectly, that of my species. We are a contradictory lot. Our indifference to other species, and even to our own long-term well-being, is demonstrated everywhere one looks, from the depleted oceans to the heating atmosphere, from poisoned wetlands to eroding farmlands and forests killed by acid rain. Who can bear in mind this worldwide devastation and the swelling catalogue of extinctions without grieving? And yet it’s equally clear that we are capable of feeling sympathy, curiosity, and even love toward other species and toward the Earth. Where does this impulse come from, this sense of affiliation with rivers and ravens, mountains and mosses? How might it be nurtured? What role might it play in moving us to behave more caringly on this beleaguered planet?
Douglas Fir- British Columbia, Canada