“I should be content,” writes the poet David Ignatow, “To look at a mountain for what it is, not as a commentary on my life.”
As many of us have experienced, this winter of 2014 has been snowy, cold, and interminably long. For me personally, it has seemed even longer, for I had my left shoulder replaced with titanium in December, and, until recently, have been pretty much homebound. As a result, our two rescue dogs have spent at least three and sometimes four days per week in “day care”.
Jim is their taxi and they arrive home in a heap at about 6 pm. Then it’s my turn. I put on my goose down parka, my red hat with its tassel and ear flaps, my mittens, and my Bogs boots which have had crampons attached since early December. Out we go, the dogs and I, into four degrees, maybe eleven degrees, maybe snow. They romp, and I sit on the deck chair that is buried up to its seat in snow and ice.
Whether the sky is cloudy or clear, the view from my perch is the same. I look at three trees in the woods, two oaks and one maple, just their trunks and branches, no leaves. It has seemed to me these denizens of the woods have a message for me, and I have been listening as intently as I know how.
I think of Jalâluddîn Rumi, “The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you, don’t go back to sleep,” even though it’s evening, not dawn, and trees, not breeze. What is the message? I strain to hear, and nothing comes to me. I listen, and hear no words. This has been my evening ritual since my December surgery.
One evening it hits me. I have been asking and listening in the wrong language, and I find myself singing snatches of an ancient hymn, “What language shall I borrow?” What is the language of trees?
It is now close to 7 pm, and the sky is a deep blue; the trees are black against the night sky. I marvel at their stalwart trunks and stark bare branches, even the most scrawny among them with distinct clarity, as it is still too cold for the early swelling of spring buds. I am looking at three trees, true, but what I am looking at, what I can see is that only which lives above the surface of the ground.
Below the surface, the story is different. The roots of these trees form a broad network of intricate exchanges, roots from one tree interweaving with roots from the others, a highway of interconnections. The tree roots work as one, breathing one another into life, feeding and nourishing one another into life.
Sadly, I think, people of churches, both ordained and lay, will tend to leap too quickly into the Christian theology of Three in One: God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Spirit, or Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. But do we need to go there? I mean, we can go there, and many do, but might there be a cost? Do we need to make that leap into a trinitarian religion in order to understand the universal narrative as sacred in and of itself? I think there is a cost. For one, it excludes more people than not from the conversation. More damaging, it discourages humans from the recognition that the earth is sacred, period.
It is likely, I believe, that if humans, whether or not we claim a religion, could come to understand the earth itself and the actions of sun, wind, water, plants and creatures as sacred, we would be far more inclined to attitudes of love and compassion. Further, if we could could come to understand ourselves as integral to that vast underground network of root systems, we would be far more inclined to attitudes of diversity and justice.
“I should be content to look at a mountain for what it is, not as a commentary on my life.”
At last I am beginning to understand what the trees behind my garden have to say to me, and they are telling me in the language of trees. What these trees do is sacred work, breathing life into one another, feeding one another into life. This is the very definition of sacrament. And by no means are these three trees a unit unto themselves. Their roots extend deep into the woods, nourishing trees that are weaker, hungrier, sun-deprived, whether oak or maple or birch or beech or white pine.
We may choose to do so, but there is no need, to overlay these sacramental acts of breathing and feeding with any human-organized religious construct.
Three trees, one tree, a diverse community of trees; it is miracle enough.