Roots and Moss

Photo by Tim Laman


Speaking for the Trees


This page is an homage to things in nature that nourish a poet’s imagination: the roots and moss of poetry that contemplates, accepts, and embraces.

So where does one start mapping this nest? Where does the glossary of tangible symbols that permeate a poet’s work begin? For me, there can only be one answer: in the forest. I admire the sea, the desert, the field with its haystacks at sunset—all these places will always have my affection. But my first, my abiding love, is for the trees.

In the forest, I’ve always felt like one might when entering a place of worship: all that peace dripping from branches, all that light filtering through leaves filled with birdsong, the hypnotic sound of a brook hidden among ferns. My feet invariably find the spellbinding tongues of water, even if I must scramble over uprooted trunks and get my clothes snagged in a thicket. The voice of a forest brook has a constant pull, like an umbilical cord. I can sit on a bank, one with the ferns, and watch the water flow by for hours.

Even in winter—or more so in winter, I find the woods, the frozen stream, the occasional patch of ice crackling underfoot, mesmerizing. I’m quiet facing the endless white that’s been there before us and will likely continue to be long after we’re gone. In winter, I think of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire.” I’m glad I have a home to go to and means to get there. I’m happy my dog has not given up on me yet, has not left me alone in the wilderness to succumb to the great sleep. But if I ever found myself stranded among the trees, frozen to the bone, would it be so tragic to fall asleep among friends?

We’ve come to believe that nature is indifferent to us. We feel small and inconsequential in the desert, on the ocean, in a field that stretches as far as eyes can see. Everything out there seems poised to engulf us in its jaws. But what’s so wrong about feeling small and reverent when facing something our mind couldn’t possibly encompass? Shouldn’t we be wary of self-touted knowledge instead? Of the hubristic feeling of power coupled with carelessness and entitlement that will end up killing our world?

These days, a world without people in it doesn’t sound so remote any longer, given our infinite capabilities to inflict damage. We’d be so lucky to go up in flames. I suspect humankind will sputter and sink with a hiss—a prolonged, painful demise, with plenty of time for regrets and desperate actions that come a handful of centuries too late.

What will the trees say when we’re gone? Who will weave their stories into poems?

Perhaps they will write their own poems. They do it now, under our very eyes, while we pass by unmoved, fists clenched, on our way to some finite goal that brings us one day closer to our great finale. And yet, the world patiently carries us onward, like a mother possum carrying her babies.

I don’t believe nature is indifferent to us. Indifference is cold—and what I feel in the woods is the opposite of a cold shoulder. I’m embraced, accepted, contemplated in return. Nature doesn’t flatter our egos. In nature, we simply are. And when we stop being, we finally give back. There’s no pesky consciousness to separate us from the place we came from, to make us feel more important than the forest we cut down to make room for another golf course.

Here’s something I wrote recently about an experience I shared with my dog. It’s hard to translate exactly how I felt in the moment, how clear things became for a fraction of a second, before I started overthinking what I felt. I should have let the trees and my dog do the thinking.

My dog is next to me, listening to the stream. An impish wind shakes up the branches above and down comes rain. What does she hear? Does she wonder, like I do, where this water is going, what it would tell us if we could understand its language? Are we ever going to be this close to hearing it, my dog and I?

Dead leaves on the banks, under our feet, each one of them veined with mysterious lines, dark spots, cryptic hieroglyphics. I want to read them all, these leaves, this talkative water, this silent dog of mine, now watching me as if I, too, were water, leaf, wind.

My dog was on to something. I must admit, I’m slightly envious of her ability to live in the moment—as I’m envious of a tree’s ability to simply exist. But there’s a strange kind of beauty in the impossibility to transcend my human limitations. I’m desperate to have the consciousness of a tree. I’ll never have it, not in this human life. It’s a failure, but a beautiful one—and I derive a strange sense of comfort from it.

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