This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Ladies and gentlemen, you will hear a star Dead a million years, in the throat of a bird. The human body will be revealed for what it is— A cluster of roots Pulling in every direction. There'll be plenty of time When an acorn grows out of your ear To accustom yourself to my ways, To carve yourself a hermit's toothpick. Charles Simic, "Forest" at the last judgment we will all be trees Margaret Atwood
In our time thought has taken so many "strange loops" that we are becoming accustomed to intellectual double‐takes. When sociobiologist Richard Dawkins suggests (in The Selfish Gene) that it is the genes themselves which are the true evolutionary beings and man merely their tool (an extension of Samuel Butler's 19th century solution to the dilemma of the chicken and the egg: a chicken is an egg's conspiracy to produce another egg); when Lewis Thomas (in The Lives of a Cell) describes the Earth as a living entity, a cell, and the human species as "organelles which do its bidding, serving as its "handymen" (Thomas' version of the now current "Gaia hypothesis"), or Annie Dillard (in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek) recasts the old ontological chestnut, "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is present, will it make a noise?" as "If I fall in the forest, will a tree hear me?"—we do blink, of course, but do not tremble, though each of these reversals entails
The Collected Works of David Lavery 2
the need for major, indeed wholesale revisioning of our sense of man's place and meaning in the world, should we accept it as true. It seems we have become largely inured to intellectual revolutions. Heathcote Williams, writing in Co‐Evolution Quarterly a few years ago, whimsically asks us to consider yet another such transposition. He argues that the "discovery of America was a conspiracy of Plant Consciousness," the result of a behind‐the‐scenes plot by the trees of Spain to find out the latest thinking of their fellow trees in the New World across the Atlantic. In order to fulfill their desire, Williams, explains, "they employed Christopher Columbus to build a ship made of wood, and when it made its return journey, they knew." Williams' provocative hypothesis does not seem to me to be at all unreasonable, but then I, too, aspire to be numbered among the "transvaluers of all values" of which Nietzsche spoke and am understandably sympathetic to such attempts. In fact, I have come to consider Williams' conspiracy theory to be shortsighted and not comprehensive enough. For trees, I have discovered, are involved in a far more devious, brilliant, and vaster scheme than the mere discovery of the New World. I have come to believe that human history may be the result of their doing, part of their plot to take over the world. Allow me to explain myself. (Please forgive me if, in doing so, I come to seem a virtual Ancient Mariner; by the end of my tale you will understand the urgency of my message and my need to communicate it.) Before disclosing the nature of this plot, however, it will be necessary to first establish its historical context through what I will call (after Theodore Roszak) a "psychic archaeology" of man's relationship with trees.
But trees are trees, an elm or oak Already both outside and in. And cannot, therefore counsel folk Who have their unity to win. Turn all tree‐signals into speech, And what comes out is a command: "Keep running if you want to reach The point of knowing where you stand."
The Collected Works of David Lavery 3
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Our race would not have gotten far, Had we not learned to bluff it out And look more certain than we are Of what our motion is about. . . . W. H. Auden, "Reflections in a Forest" In Shel Silverstein's fable The Giving Tree, a young child progressively forgets as he grows older his former sense of communion with a beloved apple tree. The concerns of adulthood—love, money, building a house, travel, gradually distract him away from childhood love for the natural world. Originally, the tree and boy share a symbiotic relationship: the tree introduces him to new forms of joy—giving him leaves to construct a make‐believe crown, challenging and thus inspiring his climbing abilities, providing apples to eat and a place to sleep—and his happiness, in turn, makes the tree happy, for it is a very "giving" tree. But as an alienated adult, the boy returns to the tree—which, we are told, has grown very lonely without its companion—only to repeatedly demand things of it: apples to sell to make money, wood to build a house, its trunk to build a boat in which he hopes to "get away from it all." Finally, as a decrepit, tired old man, he returns once again to the tree, which has continued to give and give until just its stump remains, but only to sit exhausted on what remains of his old friend, and even then, we are told, the giving tree "was happy" to be of service. Throughout man's evolution, in both its biological and cultural phases, trees have indeed been very giving. In fact, it is tempting to read Silverstein's children's story as a kind of allegorical account of the evolutionary association of man and tree. Like the boy in The Giving Tree. mankind grew to maturity in the presence of trees. Our one‐time arboreal existence in pre‐ hominid evolution, it is now widely agreed, to a great extent shaped
The Collected Works of David Lavery 4
our very being. "It is impossible to say," writes the biologist and expert on environmental perception Paul Shepard, "whether good eyes or arboreality came first." Man as we know him, Shepard argues in Man in the Landscape, "could not have been produced by any other than a diurnal arboreal ancestor." In his Dragons of Eden, Carl Sagan provides a useful summary of the traits acquired by man in his "treed" past: 1) grace and agility; 2) hand/eye coordination; 3) binocular vision; 4) the manipulative abilities of his hands; 5) his grasp of Newtonian gravitation at the intuitive level. To this list, anthropologist Edward T. Hall adds two more in The Hidden Dimension: 1) decreased dependence on smell; 2) the ability for and dependence upon abstract planning (for the eyes "code vastly more complex data and thus encourage thinking in the abstract"). "The existence of trees," John Stewart Collis has observed, "was a prerequisite of conceptual thought. It was the tree that promoted the upright posture. . . . Thus it was the tree that [he is quoting Julian Huxley] 'laid the foundation both for the fuller definition of objects by conceptual thought and for the fuller control of them by tools and machines.'"
"During our erratic wanderings from the primordial sea to the present," writes the Norwegian ecologist Rolf Edberg, "it is true that the wood was only a single phase—but a phase so long and filled with events that it can be considered a beginning for mankind. The Greeks must have felt this instinctively when they had Clio, the muse of history, dwell in a wood." Both Edberg and the Spanish philosopher Madariaga have gone so far as to suggest that man's nature may be oddly homologous to that of the tree. For Madariaga [pictured], man is "a tree that has packed up its earth and got moving," and his very mind itself, with its "down below" and "up above" dimensions, is a metamorphosis of the tree's photosynthesis. Edberg has also noted
The Collected Works of David Lavery 5
the striking similarity between the human brain and a forest. Neither of these "depth ecologies" of man and tree intend such observations to be taken as merely metaphorical, I should point out. For both thinkers, trees were, indeed still are, primary constituents of our very being‐in‐the‐world. Like the boy in the fable, man too once engaged in magical communion and communication with trees, an ability which has persisted until the present day among "primal" peoples. We can get a good sense of this elemental rapport in the following words from Tatanga Mani, or Walking Buffalo, a Stoney Indian from Alberta, Canada, who died in 1967. We saw the Great Spirit's work in almost everything: sun, moon, trees, wind, and mountains. Sometimes we approached him through these things. . . . Did you know that trees talk? Well they do. They talk to each other, and they'll talk to you if you'll listen. Trouble is, white people don't listen. They never learned to listen to the Indian so I don't suppose they'll listen to other voices in nature. But I have learned a lot from trees: sometimes about the weather, sometimes about animals, sometimes about the Great Spirit. Such primal sympathy between man and the natural world must have been with the human species since the beginning, though civilized man has learned to put away such a childish thing. In The Triumph of the Tree, Collis asks us to imagine for a moment how trees must have appeared to early human beings: "what must have been the effect of the mighty trees upon the first human inhabitants of the world! They must have seemed god‐like creatures to be placated at all costs . . . the impression which trees once made must been unsurpassed by any other phenomenon." Man's communion with trees, as Collis' word "placated" implies, was not all positive of course. The world's mythology is filled with stories of both malevolent and benevolent tree spirits: ogres, genii, jinns, witches, goblins, trolls, nymphs, gnomes, naiads, fauns, dryads, hamadadryads, satyrs, centaurs, silvani, fairies. elves, brownies, pixies, leprechauns, and stories of trees which had the power to possess a human soul, or to inflict their wrath on trespassers of their domain are common from Malaya to Great Britain.
The Collected Works of David Lavery 6
Nevertheless the tree stood as the image of imagination, of the umbilical linkage between man and the cosmos, microcosm and macrocosm. For as Roger Cook writes, in his The Tree of Life, imagination, like the tree unites heaven and earth; it is "rooted" both above and below. Uniting the luminous world of consciousness to the dark underworld of the unconscious, and drawing nourishment from both the "heavenly‐immaterial" world of intelligible meaning and the "earthy‐material" world of sensory perception, it creates the "magical" intermediary world of images.
Dodona In the Norse myth of Igdrasil, the world‐tree, in the Sanskrit belief that poetry began with the inspiration of the wind in the trees, in the Bodhi tree beneath which the Buddha sat when he achieved perfect enlightenment, in the shrine to Zeus at Dodona in ancient Greece, where for a thousand years the motions of the leaves in a grove of sacred oak trees were interpreted as the messages of Zeus, we can catch a glimpse of the "intimate and speaking contact with nature's creative power" (Edberg) which man once possessed. Like Silverstein's practical adult, we have, we like to think, matured beyond the companion of our youth, outgrown even imagination itself, for now we have science and objectivity. With the coming of civilization we began to turn our back on the trees that once both sustained and enchanted us. We have made nature natural. This process can be seen clearly in the changing attitude of the Greek mind. For once, as Roland Barthes has observed,
The Collected Works of David Lavery 7
the ancient Greek was amazed by the natural in nature; he constantly listened to it, questioned the meaning of mountains, spring, forests, storms; without knowing what all these objects were telling by name, he perceived in the vegetal or cosmic order a tremendous shudder of meaning, to which he gave the name of a god: Pan. Subsequently, nature has changed, has become social: everything that is given to man is already human, down to the forest and the river which we cross when we travel. No longer feeling the "shudder of meaning," we are no longer capable of speaking with trees. Not surprisingly, then, the founding of civilization, as historian William Irwin Thompson has pointed out, always seems to entail the destruction of a forest spirit (Thompson is thinking of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh) and the building of a wall, either architectural or psychological, in defense against its feared return. In Gilgamesh, for example, the wall Uruk is constructed to separate civilization from the forest life man has put behind him. And it is behind such walls that man embarks upon his historical project to (in the words of the philosopher Ortega y Gasset [pictured, left]) free "himself from the community of the plant and the animal," creating "an enclosure apart which is purely human, a civil space." "I have nothing to do with the trees of the field," Socrates proclaims triumphantly in the Phaedrus (4th century B.C.), "I have only to do with the man of the city, an attitude which, Ortega notes, epitomizes the rational outlook on the natural world at the birth of which Socrates served as midwife. Some sense of the sacredness of trees did remain for a time, of course, even into the Christian era. In what is now Germany, for example, a man caught desecrating a tree was himself disemboweled and his intestines wound around the offended tree in reparation. And, if we are to believe Spengler, the awesome architecture of the Gothic cathedral was an attempt to replicate the experience of life in the forest. But the biblical injunction (Exodus 34:13) against all tree idolaters ("But yee shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves") prevailed.
The Collected Works of David Lavery 8
By the eighth century the disenchantment of the forests had progressed so far that St. Boniface became revered for his act of cutting down a tree believed by the Saxons to be sacred. Myth records this advance in the Arthurian legend of the withdrawal of Merlin and his tree magic into the heart of the forest in old age, where it is believed his cry sounds there still, though now untranslatable—like the language of trees. During the Renaissance, it is true, the magic of trees returned, at least for poetic minds. In Shakespeare's depiction (in As You Like It) of a wood, free from the "penalty of Adam," in which can be found "tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in everything"; in Edmund Waller's (1606‐1687) celebration of a time when "in green palaces" the first kings reigned, Slept in their shades, and angels entertained; With such old counselors they did advise And by frequenting sacred groves grew wise . . . ; in James Howell's poetic depiction of Dodona' Grove, or the Vocall Forrest (1645) as a locale where It fortion'd not long since, that Trees did speak, and locally move, and met one another. Their airy whistling, and soft hollow whispers became Articulate sounds, mutually intelligible, as if to the soul of vegetation, the sensitive faculties and powers of the intellect also, had been co‐infused into them . . . we can certainly detect signs of reenchantment. But mostly they tended to see the archaic view of trees as a sign of primitive, childlike confusion. Listen, for example, to Howell's explanation of the tree‐speech of the Oaks at Dodona: In the nonage of the world, men's voyces were indistinct and confused and sojourning chiefly in Woods, by a kind of assimulation and frequent impressions in the eare, they resembled those soft susurrations of the Trees wherewith they conversed: untill Time, which ripeneth, and Art which perfecteth all things, and hath a greater interest in speech then Nature her
The Collected Works of David Lavery 9
self, did distinguish the misshapen sounds into syllables, and so by degrees into language. Though he does trace the origin of language back to Dodona, Howell nevertheless characterizes tree‐speech as "misshapen" and thinks of his own time as having evolved beyond such confusion of subject and object. The philosopher Descartes' more objective view of trees—he claimed to have discovered the Cartesian coordinate system while contemplating a tree outside his room through the frame of a window—might be taken to be more representative of the age and more historically influential.
Wordsworth, Colerifdge, Emerson, Goethe The Romantic movement's attempt two centuries later to develop a truly organic concept of the imagination could be seen as another attempted resacralization of the natural world. Keats tells us that poetry should come as "naturally as the leaves to a tree" or "it had better not come at all." Wordsworth writes of a "spirit in the woods" and teaches that "One impulse from a vernal wood" is wiser than "all the sages." Emerson speaks of "an occult relation between man and the vegetable" whose effect is "like that of a higher thought." Goethe instructs his contemporaries that "If it's the greatest, the highest you seek, the plan can direct you./Strive to become through your will what, without will, it is." And Coleridge, similarly, suggests that "What a plant is by an act not its own and unconsciously, that you must make thyself to become," for it is "the visible organismus of the entire silent or elementary life of nature, and therefore incorporating the one extreme becomes the symbol of the other; the natural symbol of that higher life of reason. . . ." Taken together, considered as one voice, these writers are telling us that the "sensitive plant" is the true model for all growth and development, not just the poet's. It should not surprise us, then, that the Romantics produced many a poem (and painting: think of Constable) with magical forest settings.
T h e C o l l e c t e d W o r k s o f D a v i d L a v e r y 10
And now a French philosopher and novelist comes to find trees as something "repugnant" and "in the way," as beings with whom man cannot feel even a trace of empathy, except to feel sorry for them. In Jean‐Paul Sartre's Nausea, a novel whose narrator espouses views very like Sartre's own, we find a passage like the following: I sat down on the bench, stupefied, stunned by the profusion of beings without origin: everywhere blossomings, hatchings out, my ears buzzed with existence, my very flesh throbbed and opened, abandoned itself to the universal burgeoning. It was repugnant. But why, I thought, why so many existences, since they all look alike? What good are too many duplicates of trees. Because they epitomize what Sartre calls "being‐in‐itself," because they do not, in Auden's words "have their unity to win," Roquentin (Sartre's narrator) finds their existence inconvenient, "in the way." He wants them to exist, he says, "more abstractly," more, that is, like him.
Trees and rocks do not indulge in the impertinence of foisting lessons upon us. Their method of instruction is more circuitous and indirect, but perhaps all the more potent for that. Their first lesson is to draw us outside the narrow and presumptuous horizons of our humanism. William Barrett, The Illusion of Technique What within us is tree? What cannot be budged, the stock 'not moved' that stands and yet draws us into ourselves, centers us, never rebuffs us, utters our wildest dreams for us, dreams
T h e C o l l e c t e d W o r k s o f D a v i d L a v e r y 11
of oceanic blessing, our hymns of pure being? Denise Levertov To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God. Revelations 2:7 In Regarding Wave. as an epigraph to the poem "Long Hair," Gary Snyder relates the following fantasy: Once every year, the Deer catch human beings. They do various things which irresistibly draw men near them: each one selects a certain man. The deer shoots the man, who is then compelled to skin it and carry its meat home and eat it. Then the Deer is inside the man. He waits and hides in there. But the man doesn't know it. When enough Deer have occupied enough men, they will strike all at once. The men who don't have Deer in them will also be taken by surprise, and everything will change some. This is called "takeover from inside." When I first encountered this marvelous conspiracy theory several years ago, it immediately assumed a place of honor in my daily thoughts. It seemed to me a story with real healing power—as all true stories should be. For it suggested in effect that in man's co‐evolution with the natural world nature will have the last word: it said that nature will triumph in the end, even over man's unnatural desires and by means of those same desires. It hints that even in man's treatment of nature as an object to be consumed, his reduction of the mystery of things to what Heidegger has termed "the stored‐away," nature itself is at work, conspiring to get him back—to return him to the fold, enfolding him again within the mystery. And then one night I discovered the part trees have played in this "takeover from inside." With Snyder's tale part of my understanding and despairing thoughts about the destiny of our species beleaguering my mind, I found myself prowling the aisles of a large university library, not so much in search of any particular piece of knowledge, but entranced, rather, by the phenomenon of a library itself. I walked through a room nearly as large as a basketball court where thousands of books lined
T h e C o l l e c t e d W o r k s o f D a v i d L a v e r y 12
the tall shelves, and as my eyes scanned all that immense accumulation of stored‐ away, "extra‐genetic" information (as the communication theorists call it), this "World Three," produced through the mediation of the technologies of writing and book printing, seemed to take on a new meaning. The ordinary appearance of the library faded before my eyes. I was standing—was it not obvious?—in a room full of martyred trees. Although McLuhan was probably correct in arguing that the reduction of the sensual multiplicity of the aural world of pre‐literate, oral, man into the linearity of the printed word as man entered the "Gutenberg Galaxy" had led the way to our vastly diminished awareness of nature's panoply, I wondered if it had not all been for a reason we seldom understand. Might not the Gutenberg Galaxy, I thought then, be just another name for the consumption phase of Snyder's "takeover from inside"? And was not the Gutenberg Galaxy now drawing to a close? Might it not be possible, then, I continued to think as I stood amazed in that forest/library, that trees, too—like Snyder's deer—have for these many centuries been offering us their flesh, after first irresistibly drawing us to them (as they did for a thousand years at Dodona), in order to then become, through their martyred offering of themselves in our print media, ingested by our ravenous eyes in the process of reading, in order to become a tacit power present in the very fabric of our intelligence. (Had not William Carlos Williams argued—in one of the seminal ideas of modern poetics—that the whiteness which surrounds "the figure a poem makes" on the page is as important as the poem itself?) Has not the secret motive of the trees been to seduce us, through our long exposure to the printed page's white ground and the wisdom which could be tattooed upon their skins, into a love for them and their ground, to take over from within our awareness of the world, turn us inside‐out, return us to their world in a gestalt reversal in which the natural—the very ground of our being as creatures—and the Earth itself, through its most integral, most eloquent "voices" and most enchanting emanations, the trees of Gaia, finally "gets a words in our narrow ear"— our inner ear: our room of one's own become again a forest? The words of a long‐ admired but never really understood poem suddenly became clear to me.
T h e C o l l e c t e d W o r k s o f D a v i d L a v e r y 13
The trees inside are moving into the forest, the forest that was empty all these days where no bird could sit no insect hide no sun bury its feet in shadow the forest that was empty all these nights will be full of trees by morning. (Adrienne Rich, “The Trees”) These words, I realized, were an intelligence‐report, perhaps a history. If the conspiracy of the trees which I had discovered succeeds, I thought, then, as Snyder surmised, "everything will change some." As I stood alone in the library that night I began to laugh quietly at the subtlety and indescribable wisdom of the plan. I thought of John Evelyn's observation (in the seventeenth century) that trees have twice saved mankind: once through the construction of the Ark and again by providing the Cross, on which man's sins might be redeemed, and in so doing had more than made amends for their having once provided the evil fruit of the tree of knowledge. There will be a third time, I thought. And I wondered if the Tree of Life might be the reward not of "him that overcometh" but of man overcome, taken over from inside, having reached at the end of all his running the point of knowing where he stood. Wishing the conspiracy to triumph, I resolved not to enclose it, though not to do so was clearly sedition. I discovered then my vocation: I would be a double‐agent. And yet I cannot be silent; for to help facilitate the trees' stratagem I must put words on paper, providing more food for thought . . . these words, in fact. And I thought of the words of another co‐conspirator: One space spreads through all creatures equally— inner‐world‐space. Birds quietly fly and go right through us. Oh, I that want to grow, I look outside and in me grows the tree. (Rilke)
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.