When A Tree Falls

 

To hear me recite the poem click on the video link below:

 

When A Tree Falls Video

 

When A Tree Falls—An Unexpected Reprieve

 

https://onedrive.live.com/?cid=DE7BF189930200B0&id=DE7BF189930200B0%214659&parId=DE7BF189930200B0%21206&o=OneUp

 

 

Already a bit on edge anticipating the arrival of the tree removal people, I decided to sit outside after a quick breakfast and drink my coffee on the deck out back. I normally find it soothing in the summer to look out at the natural greenery which surrounds the yard, while I sip my morning cup of java, listen to the birdsongs, and watch the squirrels hunting for something to eat.

 

 

This particular morning, the usual calming effect I’ve typically enjoyed wasn’t working its normal magic.  Even though the coffee was a little stronger than I customarily make it, it almost seemed like the morning tradition was having the opposite effect today. Visually, everything looked the same.  The sun was finding its usual paths between the branches to make a patchwork of light and shadow on the ground beneath the trees.  I observed the mostly blue sky dotted with the occasional puffy white cloud. The cats milled about oblivious to everything except for the need to pursue their periodic cleaning routines.  And yet, nothing seemed to be quite as expected.

 

 

Midmorning temperatures were already in the upper 80 degrees F. In the shade, the air temperature was only marginally cooler than in the direct sunlight. I couldn’t help but suppose that my perceptions were being colored by my anxiety and uncertainty about the impending tree removal.  

The usual hustle and bustle of the neighborhood was minimal as I sat contemplating the events of the day, but after an hour or so as the noon hour approached, I suddenly became aware of a variety of sounds that I hadn’t noticed before.  The traffic on the street seemed unusually busy and there were a number of buzzing sounds from people cutting their grass along the street. A variety of dogs were barking in the distance, almost as though they were having a long distance conversation with each other. The birdsongs seemed to have stopped altogether, and even the cats decided the best strategy at this point was to simply lie down and take a nap.

When I was informed that the tree company had to cancel for the day, it almost felt like a reprieve.  Perhaps, the universe wasn’t quite ready for the tree to come down.  I know I wasn’t really ready, but I was aware that it was going to come down one way or another, and perhaps the universe realized that I was the one who needed some more time to prepare myself.

Whatever the reason, I was relieved, if only temporarily.

The Day Unravels

The actual morning of the removal, a little over a month later, temperatures had slowly begun their descent into the upper 70’s F during the day, but were decidedly cooler in the morning. When I opened the door to go out and pick up the newspaper, I was wearing a sweater for the first time since the spring.  I stared momentarily out the window through the storm door at the tree, but in a way that I never imagined I would do.  I took a few more photos, even though I had taken more on the morning of the reprieve, and several in between that day and this morning. This morning, everything felt different.

I shuffled out to the kitchen and got the coffee started as usual, but there was a palpable sense of an impending alteration of my reality.  I spent a few minutes outside just walking around the house, almost expecting to see some gaping hole in the ground with a glowing meteorite still smoking at the bottom of the crater.

This morning, it was a fairly cool—64 degrees F, and as I waited for the coffee to get done, I sat on the patio out back, looking briefly at the headlines in the paper, gathering my thoughts, and steeling myself for what was to come. I nervously typed out a few sentences on my laptop, hoping that I might somehow find the right words to calm myself.

After a few minutes, the coffee was ready, and as I poured the first cup of the day, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion. My normal routine became a more nuanced ritual than usual.  Everything felt different.  While I was stirring the cream into the cup, I thought to myself, “Maybe I should go out front and sit with my silent friend. She’s comforted me plenty of times over the years; perhaps she would be glad to have some company on her final morning as a tree.

 

I moved the chair and side table out to the front yard, and resumed typing out my thoughts a few feet away from the grand lady.  The sun was just peeking up over the roof of the house across the street, and I stopped for a moment to take it all in, and snapped a few quick photos.  I honestly can’t say what I thought I would capture in that scene that I hadn’t already preserved in the dozens of others images I made before this morning, but it definitely felt like it was important to record the final moments before demolition.

 

 

The street was quiet for the most part.  I don’t recall ever actually sitting out in front of the house in the morning like this, although I often walked around the yard for one reason or another.  Sometimes, when the kids were small we would have some event to deal with and there would be some sort of activity out in the front of the house, and most mornings in recent years, I usually walk out to pick up the newspaper at least.  Several of the neighbors were stirring and setting out on their way to work or whatever else they had planned for the day. 

 

There were a few young folks walking to the local middle and high schools which are right down the street from us. A couple of school buses drove by, but other than that, it was fairly calm.  I started to silently consider what was about to happen, and sat staring at the tree for a solid minute or two.  The idea that it wouldn’t be there by the end of the day didn’t seem real at all, and it occurred to me that knowing what was about to happen was almost like contemplating my own eventual demise—something that I never could quite imagine or ever wanted to consider. 

 

A Long History of Being

We have so little genuine knowledge about what a tree might be feeling or perceiving or be aware of in some way, and this particular silent friend only has a few years on me age-wise.  My parents were still dating when they planted the tree in 1947 when the house was built, and I didn’t come along for another six years.  Even though I am a bit younger than the tree, there is a real connection that has developed over the last thirty years that makes it feel like we are very much equal in age, although aging for a tree is likely a much different proposition than it is for humans.

I supposed I would have an opportunity to see the rings on the stump of the tree at some point and hoped to be able to determine the precise age in some way.  My interest in every aspect of the process and being able to participate in it and witness it every step of the way had already been keen, and it felt like the right thing to do in view of our long association. 

 

A September Mourning

Once the tree company crew arrived, I immediately felt a strange sort of calm overtake me.  I greeted the foreman and asked about the process they would use to remove the tree. I had expected them to bring one of those “bucket trucks,” to cut the uppermost branches without endangering the electrical wires or any of the surrounding obstacles.  He reassured me that they would simply climb up the tree with their safety equipment and conduct the “surgery” without a problem. 

I moved my patio chair a safe distance away, and watched the expert crew leader climb high up into the branches, tie off his safety harness to one of the larger limbs and begin to work.  I had already decided to record the process with my phone camera, but found myself often simply observing and carefully moving my vantage point to get the best angle of view.  It was mesmerizing to watch in a very odd way, mixing in all my emotions and anxieties, while still finding the experience strangely compelling to witness.

As the work progressed, there were several moments when large sections of the tree’s limbs would come crashing to the ground with a loud “thud,” sometimes landing on the street, sometimes landing in the yard. There were several opportunities in between the precision strokes of carnage to view the inner surfaces of the tree’s appendages, which revealed an astonishing array of colors and conditions.

One of the larger side limbs had been under assault by a colony of black ants, which had hollowed out the central core of a small section of it, apparently begun only a short time ago judging by the minimal progress made. Several of the larger sections of the trunk were cut out in pieces and provided an astonishing view of the layers of growth, with a variety of different colors and widths.

 

As the work was nearing completion, the inevitable sensation of melancholy began to slowly creep in to my mindset, and although I was resigned to the outcome all along, watching as they shredded the final sections of the main trunk, now lying on the sidewalk like slices of cake on a platter, the full impact of the loss was becoming apparent. I felt a bit deflated as the crew began to clean up the area, and walked up to the remaining layer of the stump, feeling empty as the air that now filled the space where the tree stood.

I thanked the crew for doing such an expert job without creating any safety concerns, and complimented the crew leader for his obvious skill in navigating through the tangle of limbs and branches to execute his task. The professionalism and quality of their work on this assignment, although it was an unhappy one from my point of view, was admirable and very impressive nonetheless.

 

When A Tree Falls

 

I sat for some time afterwards, just staring at the gaping hole in the once familiar landscape out in front of the home I have lived in for thirty years, and in spite of my resignation regarding the removal, I couldn’t help but feel that what was now missing from the scene was simply a tangible structure of nature’s handiwork.

 

 

What once had been contained within a physical structure, had now been transformed into a memory, and even though the actual wood that composed that structure was mostly sawdust and shredded bits of a once grand living tree, what was most compelling and satisfying about my relationship with it was not lost at all. I carried every bit of my attachment and affection for my silent friend with me as I headed back to the house, and will keep it with me always.

 

 

As I requested, the crew leader made sure that I had a collection of logs from some of the smaller branches to stack out in the backyard to dry out and age a bit, so that I can eventually honor the memory of our connection by burning the logs in the woodstove, to warm the house in the bitter cold days of winter, or to illuminate the evening sky on some future evening on the patio.

 

When a tree falls, nature compensates in a number of ways by providing shelter for the tiny creatures of the forest floor, or eventually enriching the soil when it breaks down over many years, back into the land from which it came. My hope is that the enrichment I have received, by sharing our connection over the years of life for the tree, will continue to inform my own life, and endure in the years to come.

Contradiction and Truth

                                         Each moment, as we nearer drew to each,

                                        A stern respect withheld us farther yet,

                                        So that we seemed beyond each other’s reach,

                                        And less acquainted than when we first met.

 

                                        We two were one while we did sympathize,

                                        So could we not the simplest bargain drive;

                                        And what avails it now that we are wise,

                                        If absence doth this doubleness contrive?

 

                                       –excerpt from the poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau, 1840

 

Having recently reviewed the 2014 film, “Ask Me Anything,” written and directed by Allison Burnett, which is based on his novel, “Undiscovered Gyrl,” I was struck by a scene in the film where the female lead in the film is presented with a list of “Ten Bitter Truths,” supposedly in response to her request for “lessons about adulthood.”

What struck me most was how cynically slanted the list was and, as a result, I felt compelled to respond with my own less cynical commentary.  The list appears below and the numbering of my comments mirror the numbers in the list.

                                                                                              Guernica by Picasso

Ten Bitter Truths

1.    Complete honesty is a complete lie.

2.    Marriage is sacred only to those who have never been married.

3.    Money is more integral to happiness than romantic love.

4.    Every human being is a contradiction; some hide it better than others.

5.    Never underestimate the tendency of human beings to act contrary to their own best interests.

6.    Were it not for the fear of being caught, most of us would behave like savages.

7.    All sex has consequences, most of them dire.

8.    The older you get the faster time flies until months pass like days.

9.    There’s no such thing as living happily ever after.

10.  Everything gets worse.

 

Scientist leaving the world. Engraving c.1520. 

1.    It isn’t so much that complete honesty is unachievable or that we are somehow incapable of it, but rather that complete honesty isn’t always the most advantageous approach to every situation. There’s no reliably clear advantage to being brutally honest at all times, and even when we might be uncertain, to varying degrees, about what the complete truth of a certain circumstance might be, expressing that uncertainty under some conditions may work against us. The framing of our responses, in a way that mitigates the consequences of those circumstances, it could be argued, can ultimately produce a more desirable outcome, depending on the particulars.  Humans are adaptable by nature, and if we can enhance our ability to adapt, and also improve our ability to survive and thrive simultaneously through sharing a proportionate degree of honesty, in specific instances, the benefits of doing so can outweigh the rigid structural framework of what might be described as “complete honesty.” This is not to suggest that such mitigation is appropriate in EVERY circumstance, but rather, that mindless conformity to any absolute principle of unmitigated honesty or to its opposite, at all times, could sabotage our human abilities for adaptation and mitigation, which might be essential to our long term survivability.      

 

2.    The nature of human interactions with regard to the sacred or the divine aspects of our humanity are not dependent upon any specific institution, and what we describe as “sacred,” refers to elements that have no universal criteria to define them or by which we could, in every case, fairly judge them to be so described. Even in a common social relationship or in a specific religious context, the “sacred” can exist within it, regardless of the milieu in which it occurs. Marriage can either be sacred or not, and relationships which exist outside of institutional marriage can embody the “sacred,” just as reliably as those within it. The idea that only people who are not married think of marriage as sacred underestimates everyone.        

3.    Determining what constitutes happiness is a completely subjective judgment, and while financial stability can be an important component of our well-being generally, to say that it is more integral to happiness than romantic love is to denigrate the value of both money and romantic love.  “What does it profit a man to gain the entire world, if he suffers the loss of his soul?”  How could any amount of money compensate for a bitter loneliness or an absence of any meaningful interaction with our fellow humans? How often have we heard about couples who have very little in the material sense who are otherwise living happy and balanced lives? Romance is not a cure-all certainly, and it ebbs and flows in every loving relationship, but suggesting that money is MORE integral than romantic love to happiness is just plain wrong.           

4.    Contradiction in a person or in an argument implies some sort of logical incongruity or denial of what otherwise represents an expectation or understanding of a person’s character or the premise of an argument. The entire universe is a conglomeration of opposites—hot and cold; north and south; east and west; male and female; fast and slow; young and old. To suppose that we might be able to escape our contradictions in the way we feel, the way we think, and in many of the ways we live our lives, would be to deny our very nature as a part of the entire universe. Each of us must decide which of the tendencies toward the opposites we will assume as we navigate through our lives, and rarely does anyone follow a single inclination in any of the innumerable ways in which we might engage life through the years. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a contradiction at all times and that some people are just good at hiding it.  To be human is to change, and to adapt, and to innovate, and to grow, and to learn. Some of us accomplish these tasks with greater ease and ability than others, but changing is less a contradiction than it is a part of our nature to adapt and grow—to progress.           

5.    This is just a variation of the contradiction argument. What may appear to others as an action that is against our own best interest might actually serve us better in the long term. We are constantly changing and adapting and learning from our mistakes, and as we navigate through the trials and tribulations we encounter, we sometimes fail to choose our actions as wisely as we could. Deciding which actions are in our own best interest and which are not requires a learning curve usually, but to assume that we should expect it as a matter of course ignores the obvious benefits of failure which can serve as a guidepost to making better decisions in the future.       

6.    This item is one of the most cynical of all these ideas.  Anyone with even a minimal amount of life experience can recognize the value of civilized behavior, and if we are minimally observant—just reasonably astute—we can figure out that acting like a savage is a zero-sum game. In the earliest history of humankind, life was indeed savage, brutal, and short. Tribal warfare was common and weaker groups were routinely conquered by the stronger ones. Civilization took a really long time to get past the most savage stage of our development through the centuries.  Suggesting that we are now still all just savages beneath the surface, and only restrained by the consequences of savagery is to ignore the historical record of humanity’s progress into the modern world.  Of course, there are individuals and groups that can act in ways that are reminiscent of our savage roots, and we haven’t completely conquered our instinctive drives in every corner of the world, but empathy and altruistic instincts also are strong within us now, having evolved beyond the early history of our species, and rational, intelligent, and generous humans exist on a much greater scale now than ever before in our history, and to suggest otherwise is cynical in the extreme.     

 

                                                                Balance of Energy is a painting by Deidre Harris    

 

7.    The consequences of engaging in sexual activities can fall within a whole spectrum of results, depending on the individuals and circumstances in which they take place. Most of them are not dire, thankfully, but engaging in them recklessly or irresponsibly can have serious consequences, and if we simply use reasonable caution these days to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, the consequences can be far less dire than suggested by this idea. Most of the dire circumstances that result these days aren’t because of simply engaging in sexual activity, but by doing so without regard for routine precautions, or when inappropriate or unwelcomed by the other person.  To say that most consequences are dire is simply not true.  

 

 

8.    While the years definitely seem to pass more rapidly as we age, even as we approach the later years of our lives, it takes exactly the same amount of time for a year, a month, and a day to pass. When we are five years old, one year represents a fifth of our lives.  When we are 70, a year is 1/70th of our lives. The perspective of years is an obvious factor in how we view time, but even as an older person, months don’t seem like days and the exaggeration isn’t really helpful.  Each and every day is an opportunity to engage with life and to experience a limitless variety of possibilities to fill up the days, weeks, months, and years. If we proceed mindlessly through the hours and days of our lives without a deliberate choice of some sort or without some degree of urgency regarding a purposeful action to serve those choices, time will catch up with us eventually.  Learning is a life-long activity and whatever our circumstances, with personal effort, and maybe some help from our fellow travelers, we can find a way to make use of our time that can slow things down a bit.      

 

 

9.    While the concept of living “happily ever after” is usually introduced at a very early age in children’s stories and fairy tales, it isn’t meant to suggest that living “happily” means without any challenges or difficulties for the rest of our lives. We can live a life that we can consider “happy” generally, even though it may contain “bumps in the road.” Children need time to accumulate life experience in order to grasp the broader implications of how one might be able to live as life progresses, but they will usually bounce back in spite of encountering innumerable challenges at a young age. Even in the face of some personal tragedy which might occur, they often demonstrate a resilience that can surprise most adults. A happy life isn’t one free of difficulty.  Inevitably, it is one that has some capacity for overcoming adversity when it occurs; one that appreciates the joys when they arrive; and one that strives to make something worthwhile out of the time they are given.   

 

10.  This one is the most cynical of all.  Lots of things can get worse given the right conditions, but there are plenty of things that can get better given the same chance.  We can either actively contribute to our own betterment or allow our actions or inaction to result in our own detriment at any given time.  Of course, there are times when detrimental events occur that are beyond our control, and we don’t always have the luxury of choosing the results when life occasionally “happens,” but we usually have a choice as to how we respond to what happens, or at least how we think about what happens.  Not everything gets worse.   

 

“Eternity may not the chance repeat,

But I must tread my single way alone,

In sad remembrance that we once did meet,

And know that bliss irrevocably gone.”

–excerpt from poem, “Sympathy,” by Henry Thoreau

 

Adulthood does have its challenges, and our lives and ways of being are not without a degree of contradiction, trials, and imbalance, but even as we reflect on any “sad remembrance,” each of us must recognize that for every “bliss irrevocably gone,” there is inevitably a subsequent opportunity for new experience—another opportunity to say, “We two were one while we did sympathize.”

Our True Nature

 

“The Buddha taught that our true nature is emptiness- a lack of a permanent Self- and when this true nature is realized, the divine states of the Brahma-viharas – loving-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity- emerge.”

“In the teachings of the great yoga masters, our true nature is Brahman, the universal soul, of which the individual soul is simply a part. When this is realized there is ‘satchidananda,’ the awareness of bliss, from the knowing that pure awareness is our ultimate nature.”

“There are moments small and large when we are filled with the transcendent, as though we have been lifted out of our bodies or the Divine has entered us as grace.”

“Both the path of transcendence and the path of immanence are beautiful, whole, and worthy. It is your heart that must find its true path.”

–excerpts from “Realizing Your True Nature,” by Phillip Moffitt

 

 

Inspired this week by a personal challenge to the true nature of our world and our humanity, it occurred to me that any unnecessarily extreme version of a worldview, whether it is based on science or religion or philosophy, can mitigate our ability to navigate  in the world of our everyday living, and if we could only see that much of the discord in the world could be lessened significantly by striving for a balanced approach to addressing any of the most vexing questions we are engaged in answering, we might find that greater progress is possible.

No matter how much effort we pour into finding an explanation of how everything works in the physical universe, and no matter how much progress we achieve in all of the related sciences surrounding our subjective experience of human consciousness, any effort to compose a comprehensive accounting for every aspect of our existence, if it does not include the contributions made possible through transcendence and immanence, will likely fall short of an actual understanding of our true nature.

One need not be an advocate of Buddhism in order to arrive at a better understanding of our true nature as living beings, and although ideas like the ones expressed by Phillip Moffitt provide an excellent starting place for approaching the subject in conversation and study, even those with no inclination generally to support specific religious viewpoints can join the conversation by examining the basic principles they address.  Whether or not we embrace such ideas as a matter of course or bring other opposing views to such interactions,  giving consideration to the full realm of possibility, at least as a starting point to explore the ideas presented in the quotes above, is a helpful tool in our progressive discernment process.

 

 

We are beginning to see a few hopeful signs in the willingness of scientists, philosophers, and poets, to at least listen to a greater range of ideas from their unique viewpoints, which include sincere scientific approaches, as well as genuine philosophical and spiritual inclinations found often in music, art, and poetry.  Just because some ideas come from a creative approach to human expression, they shouldn’t be automatically dismissed as “wishful thinking,” and well-reasoned, thoroughly-researched, and innovative scientific ideas should be given commensurate consideration when they are presented in the interest of moving our understanding forward.

In asking ourselves questions such as, “What could account for our intuitive sense of the unity of all life, when such clear divisions exist between species and among all levels within major branches of the tree of life?,” or “Why does anyone suppose because we are not able currently to fully account for experiences of transcendence and immanence as measurable phenomena, that giving consideration to the potential existence of such an idea isn’t worthwhile?,” we begin a dialog that can lead to an expansion of the realm of what’s possible.

 

 

I was recently able to review a National Geographic documentary, distributed by PBS, and appearing on Disney Plus streaming service, called, “The Greeks,” and prior to the Greek Civilization, much of what occurred in the world was cloaked in superstition and thought to be the result of the influence of benign Gods and malicious demons, but according to this presentation, that all changed once the Greeks set out to understand the world through reasoning and focused attention on philosophical thinking.  The mini-series is informative and interesting with a number of modern-day thinkers contributing to an overall view of how the Greeks contributed to important changes in the course of human history.

Did our inclination to abandon the notion of Gods and Demons influencing and directing the fate of humanity in the world originate in Ancient Greece?  According to historian, J.M. Roberts, who wrote a volume of “Ancient History,” published by Duncan Baird Publishing, 2004:

 

 

“The Greek challenge to the weight of irrationality in social and intellectual activity tempered its force as it had never been tempered before…They invented the philosophical question as part and parcel of one of the greatest intuitions of all time, which was that a coherent and logical explanation of things could be found…the liberating effect of this emphasis was felt again and again for thousands of years…It was the greatest single Greek achievement.”

Whether or not a “coherent and logical” accounting of consciousness might eventually include aspects of transcendence and immanence as essential components is still an open question, but a comprehensive account of the true nature of things begs the question, and requires a serious look at the kind of philosophical thinking inspired by the Greeks!