Whenever I can, I drive a mile or so from my home to a lakeside park to enjoy the beauty not only of the large lake but of the giant cypress trees, hung with Spanish moss. Looking at the water through the cluster of these trees is always memorable because I am taken out of myself.
The trees are home in the spring to nesting egrets, large white birds who are wise to choose such a lofty perch. In April, they can be noisy. On my recent visits to the lake, all is quiet except for occasional boats.
This spot has become for me a prayerful place, a place to see the reality of the present. "Most people don't see things as they are," Richard Rohr writes, "because they see things as they are." And this is not seeing at all.
It is looking with the small self, the ego. To see and observe trees, in this case, and the serenity of the lakeside park is to move beyond myself, to follow Rohr's line of contemplative reflection, and to grasp a larger reality since my life is not just about me in isolation. It's about me in relationship with nature and others. It has to do with love.
Can I say I love trees? Perhaps. I care about them and appreciate their beauty, especially the strong oaks that spread out their branches or the camphor tree in my back yard that has grown in twenty years from a sapling to a huge, powerful presence. I am in awe of many old trees and love to look at them in their varying shapes and sizes, with or without leaves. Many are ancient (who knows how old?) and have withstood blights and human civilization. They endure, silently feeding a hidden world of creatures.
I have just read an interesting piece in the New York Review of Books about two new studies of trees, one by a German, one by a British academic. The review prompts me to want to know more about the inner life of trees. Especially the oaks described by Fiona Stafford (The Long, Long Life of Trees):
"No other tree is so self-possessed, so evidently at one with the world," she writes in the review I quote by Thomas Pakenham. "The solid, craggy trunk of a mature oak spreads out, as if with open arms, to create a vast hemisphere of thick, clotted leaves."
Do trees have a way of communicating to one another? Peter Wohlleben indicates they do: in fact, he finds a subtle underground network among the trees he has studied; they send vital information to one another. If a certain tree is threatened by a certain insect, it will send a message prompting other trees to release a chemical that repels the harmful insect. Amazing.
I am glad to know that these authors care about how trees live and die and relate to the rest of the ecosystem--and who, at the same time, look at them with the wonder and awe that I do when I look at the giant cypresses towering over the lake.
Maybe part of my appreciation comes from seeing how often I have taken these trees for granted. I look at them now with deep gratitude and really see them.