12.17.2019

Conversing with Trees


 
Look at these two trees. They're the same species, whatever that means, living yards from each other. 
Isn't it obvious that they're living different lives having having made different decisions along the way? 
Don't they exude distinctive style, each taking on the world in its own way?
Don't they communicate with the world quite differently?

I grew up for the most part just north of Manhattan in a tiny town along the Hudson River replete with big bold trees — old massive oaks and maples, some weeping willows, perhaps a Japanese maple or two and, well, that's all the tree names I know. I never took particular notice of said trees. They were always just there, a leafy green background. Mostly, I was wary of the poison ivy that plagued my young summers.

Then, in the early Fall of my junior year of high school, that all changed. One particular night, infused with sudden sensitivity, I could hear the trees. They weren't speaking words we know. This was not some magical world of lore where the trees whisper secrets to me about my life: Seek the love of the dark haired yogi, Vaguely Rabbinical One. Oy, that would be depressing. Can you imagine being a tree and caring whether I date someone or not? To imagine that trees care much about this human nonsense is absurd, limiting, and dangerous. Humans are one relatively minor part of an elaborate ecological symphony. Whether the trees reveal heretofore unknown truths to me is incidental rather than necessary. Like any communication, it can fall on deaf ears, be read this way or that, or just be plain old banal.

These trees weren't communicating in some arborescent semiotic system. This was not "Arrival" — no linguists were needed to parse this root grammar and decode verdant symbols. I'm sure trees have some sort of linguistic structures but I didn't need to know those to hear what these trees, mostly oaks, were saying.

And yet trees of course communicate as trees communicate. How could it be otherwise? A tree speaks a tree perspective, necessarily, just as I speak mine, the gnat its, bovine theirs, cars theirs, and so on. The language of the cosmos is babble and includes the organic and inorganic alike.

And yet we're not bound solely by our local linguistic structures. That would be a dramatically bad reading of what's come to be known as postmodern social constructivism which believes we write our own stories as we see fit. No one I have ever read has ever said such a thing. All arguments, all communication, happen within a milieu of bodies and forces that language inflects, hedges, and distributes. And vice-versa: forces and bodies inflect, hedge, and distribute language.

Communication is not something added to the world. Communication — whether linguistic, terrestrial, affective — is constitutive of the very fabric of the world. The universe communicates. Suns and planets flirt and fight, nudging, enticing, seducing each other. A galaxy is a conversation.

We speak to each other all the time across languages, time periods, geographies, and species. Some of this communication takes place within the linguistic economies of meaning — grammar, signs, inflection. These economies are themselves fundamentally cooperative: language, after all, doesn't belong to anyone. We share these words and these grammars. We operate together in this space of communication, in this in-between where meaning, affect, and bodies are proffered and metabolized — even when speaking in the traditional sense of words.

So when we talk about communication, let's not keep our focus restricted to the ways we learn languages in schools — memorizing conjugations, inflections, vocabulary. Those are just tools. Communication happens between bodies of every sort along multiple registers at once — conceptual, affective, desirous. And while we don't all technically speak the same language, we do all communicate in some form.

Why wouldn't we communicate with trees? Trees are so verbose, so expressive, always and necessarily — almost aggressively so. If you start paying attention, the din of it all can be deafening. But I only took notice, at 16 and suddenly sensitive, when the trees had shed their leaves. All these branches stopping, starting, shifting size and direction. In fact, we call this kind of inflection articulation as in these branches are so articulated and, well, so articulate. They gesture so much and so explicitly. Look. As the great poet, writer, and theorist Kat Mandeville wrote me, "the breeze in the leaves & branches is as emotion & thought is through a face."

Trees have so much to say. Don't you hear all that articulation. What's your reply?

To be clear, it was not a matter of the trees bestowing their ancient natural wisdom upon my foolish human ears. I never want to suggest that humans and our language are somehow lesser than any other language or life — of birds, buffalo, trees, gods. We speak our languages amid the great chorus of languages we call life. Everything speaks its tongue — rocks, doors, ants, kittens, children, plants, machines. And we can understand each other! Just as English speakers can make sense of other people while traveling through Asia, Africa, South America, we can make sense of other forms, living and not. How else could we function with the world if we weren't communicating with it? If linguistic structures were the sole mode of discursive engagement? There are other registers of meaning beyond, within, below our local dialects.


Image result for truth and method gadamer
One of those books that pervades my thinking.
This is the premise of Hans-Georg Gadamer's hermeneutics in which understanding is a necessary component of communication. This position stands it stark contrast to Jacques Derrida's deconstruction where understanding is perpetually deferred — we look up a word in the dictionary, then all the words in that definition, then all the words in that definition, ad infinitum so meaning never arrives (for those interested, Derrida calls this différance; to read for this deferral in any text is what he calls deconstruction.) For Gadamer, understanding doesn't come from linguistic signification but from co-habitation of a space-time continuum or what he calls history. We are of this time and place, however linguistically or experientially different; our communication is hence necessarily of the same stuff. His Truth and Method is one of the books that pervades me to this day. (Gadamer and Derrida actually had a public debate about precisely this).

The trees, then, were speaking with me — not to me, with me. All communication, linguistic or otherwise, is multi-directional. It's never a true hermetic soliloquy. I was active in this conversation even if I had little of substance to add. I was only 16, after all. I think one reason I like talking with trees is what they have to say is usually more interesting than what I have to say. It's such a luxury to shut up and listen without being bored or annoyed. Trees are not inherently more interesting than people; they just happen to usually be as they've lived such different lives than I have and usually care about things more interesting than Trump, their job, their romantic lives, or their precious kids. But of course there are boring trees, too.

I say I could hear the trees but that isn't quite right. In fact, I'd say there was nothing to hear per se but that wouldn't be correct, either. I was certainly hearing them — only it wasn't just my ears in play. There was a murmuring, albeit incredibly articulate, that I could see and feel, both sensually and affectively. My senses, my body, and my feelings were being palpated by these trees. As in any rhetorical exchange, I was literally moved. These trees, like all things, were making an impression on me. Such is the way of all communication: when we see, hear, feel, smell, taste things, said things press upon us leaving their mark. All sensing is palpation of a sort.

Keeping senses distinct never suffices. Experience is necessarily synesthetic. How weird would it be if communication occurred through the silos of the senses? My ears hear but I don't sense you in any other way? Feel your presence? How could that be possible? We all know that the encounters we remember are communications that register at different registers at once — the conceptual to the erotic to the physical to the affective. Earthquakes are the earth communicating. All communication is vibratory, more or less intensive, more or less conceptual, more or less moving. We feel it as much as we understand it.

So when I found myself conversing with the trees, all of me was in play, not just my ears. Much of hearing a tree demands seeing. When you look at a tree, you see all these gestures, all these decisions: you see time. You see style. When I gesture, which I do often, said gesture comes and goes and my body goes on as it was before. But the gesture of a tree — the way a branch twists and turns and reaches for the sky — takes time. Trees wear and bear their decisions in their very fabric. We see these gestures happening sprawled over decades, over centuries, playing out before us. The rings of a tree are the most famous way trees wear their time. But it happens elsewhere as in the winding of a branch, the undulations of bark, in the reach of roots' reckoning.

And, sure, were I an arborist or botanist, I'd be able to decode much of a tree's communication. But that language never suffices for surely trees communicate more than what particular climate or animal phenomena shaped their bark or whether they're sick. In fact, I'm tempted to say that being privy to that knowledge can impede your communication with trees as all you're looking for are signs — and signs are necessarily backwards looking, pointing to pre-established meanings. Communication, however, happens now. Yes, it's always historical but it's also part of a moving, living body expressing itself — its mood, desires, its longing — in the moment. Much of what we say lurks in the how.

A tree's gestures are slow, taking decades, even centuries. Look at how this tree dances. Such style! We see its gestures emerging, a dance in achingly patient slow-mo. 

Look at a tree. Look how it winds, twists, and turns. It doesn't grow with maximum efficiency. Its growth is not a matter of instinct, at least not as we imagine instinct. You can see the decisions of the tree, how it bends and bows just so, spreads its branches and leaves. Trees grow for fun; they grow for love, with love, in love. They play just as all living things play. How do I know this? They tell me.

When I left my home town for college in Philly, I thought I'd lost the thread of my conversations with trees. It was as if all I could speak was oak and maple. But then one day as I was traipsing down one of the the utterly depressing streets of West Philadelphia — much of West Philly is actually quite gorgeous — I was stopped in my tracks by this wise cracking ginkgo. It had its leaves. And it wasn't offering anything that seemed of cosmic import. It was just a particularly witty tree. Every time I'd see it, I'd crack up. And, no, I wasn't laughing at this tree; it was not funny looking. I was laughing with this tree because it was just so dry and funny.

This surprised me. I think I always imagined that trees could only be serious. Wit seemed so, well, human. But I was wrong: wit and humor are constitutive of the cosmos. We know this from watching animals play; they can often be tricky, clever, and silly with each other. The same is true of foliage: it can be clever, witty, playful, funny.

Since that one night in 1986, I've been able to speak with trees. For a while, this communication came readily and was in fact so loud, their bellowing often drowned out everything else. I had to hush them. Over time, this conversational ease with the trees faded. It became more difficult to hear them. These days, I have to stop and listen, open myself up, as if recalling those fragments of French I heard as a child.

Such is the way of all hearing, all communication: it takes an opening up with all one's senses. Amid the din of the everyday, we tend to fall into the habit of only hearing the strictly linguistic, the things people say, the what and not the how. But such words are only one aspect of any communication, of any conversation, of any event. The world speaks to us if we know how to listen. The world speaks with us if we know how to converse.

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