Essay: The Trees
Beginning is difficult.
I want to say something useful to you. I want to say something inspiring. Whitman said,
“Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Have you practiced so long to learn to read?” (Song of Myself, Canto 2)
I'm fascinated that those questions follow each other. More on that later. Like Whitman, I have questions that won't go away. I've tried to answer them. Yet, so many answers feel unsatisfactory. This essay — the first of a series, I hope — is my next attempt to answer those questions. I'll share with you my thinking on storytelling, poetry, ecology, and community. Consider this your invitation into my questions.
I don't know if I will find any answers. If you are up for an adventure nonetheless, I'll offer you an essay every month. I also hope that, if you find any of this worthwhile, you will share with friends.
So to begin...
Starting where I am.
I'm compelled to begin with the death of a recent poet, W. S. Merwin. I have struggled with what to say in this essay in part because I am grieving him.
Few poets have done so much to bridge the consciousness of our time with the gifts of our poetic tradition. He was a translator and teacher of poetry — from Italian, Portuguese, French, Spanish, even Occitan — because he saw the value of the Renaissance traditions and their intensely focused forms. Yet he also studied the poetry and philosophy of Japan. He, too, felt both the yearning for beauty that feels familiar and the need for silence in an all-too-noisy West.
Eventually he became involved in peace protests and conservation work. He devoted the last years of his life to creating a haven for rare species of palm trees at his home in Hawaii. He has almost mythical proportions in my mind — a wise, silver-haired sage, singing poems on the mountaintops. I'm almost certain he tasted freedom.
Here's one of his poems:
Your absence has gone through me Like thread through a needle. Everything I do is stitched with its color.
When I first encountered this poem, I sat in stunned silence. In three simple lines it resonated with my lived experiences of loss, grief, and heartache.
Poetry formulates our experience of difficult and ineffable subjects — the divine, the mysterious, and the overwhelming. In writing about the changing of seasons, Merwin wrote that “There is no season / that requires us” (p. 103). That urges the question, then why we are here? If no season requires us, then our presence — each of us — is an answer beyond simply requirement. We are here for some greater purpose. For me, and I believe for Whitman and Merwin, that is why they turned to poetry. In other words, if there is no part of earth which requires our existence, then how do we justify our place in the world?
Let's turn back to Whitman's questions. Here again are those lines from “Song of Myself” (Canto 2):
Have you reckoned a thousand acres much? Have you reckoned the earth much? Have you practiced so long to learn to read?
First, Whitman asks us to consider the space of a thousand acres. I don't know about you, but I'm not sure that I've ever seen a thousand acres in a single glance. If I ever have, it's from the window of an airplane. I can only reckon the entire earth in one look thanks to photos from space. It's possible because of human genius. Without that technology (planes and space shuttles), reckoning the whole earth is only possible in the human imagination. But, that's precisely what Whitman poses in his next question. By practicing to learn to read, by expanding our powers of imagination, we can indeed understand and behold the world.
Moreover, “to read” here is not simply the act of comprehending words on a page, but also the entering of the mind of another author. Reading is an invitation to another world.
The German language has a word for this: Sonder. Sonder is the name for the feeling of realizing that you can never fully comprehend the inner life of another person.
I'll pause a moment to contemplate that. We can never completely reckon the experience of another human being. Their inner life is too rich, too complex, and so unique.
Then, if poetry gifts me the experience of Sonder as I encounter the words of another poet, I am at the same time driven to gift others Sonder of myself. That is why I write. My words only come into being because of my reality and nodes of experience. My own poetics help to form and inform myself.
That is why each of us in an existence beyond requirement. Each of us has a unique inner landscape (our “thousand acres,” if you will). No one can offer the world what you offer.
Sonder is a way of reading the world, and being ever aware of its mysteries.
Take an imaginative leap with me. That sense of poetry being Sonder-ful.... does it also apply to the natural world? What is it like to be a tree?
Research has shown that part of why trees sway back and forth, even on a calm day, is that they have a pulse. (See In the Company of Trees, p. 51). Their networks of roots to move nutrients and sap is in some ways not too unlike the human person. Perhaps that is why so many mystic philosophies draw the human body as a tree?
Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran (author of the book The Prophet, among others), said that “Trees are poems that the earth writes upon the sky.” What would we do if we applied that idea of Sonder to the whole earth? How then would we “reckon a thousand acres”? If the earth writes poetry, too, what experience of the earth can we glimpse in beholding the natural world? To again hint at Whitman's questions, have we “practiced enough” to know how to read the world in this way?
Vincent van Gogh wrote in one of his letters, “How right it is to love flowers and the greenery of pines and ivy and hawthorn hedges; they have been with us from the very beginning.” (quoted in In the Company of Trees, p. 22). How right indeed. Like Whitman, like Merwin, like Gibran, our reading of the world, and our understanding of our place in it, seems to require a love of things beyond ourselves — and especially a love of the things and the people giving us the experience of Sonder.
Merwin planted trees. He yearned for our society (and not just America, but all of our earth) to grow great. Whitman, too, contemplated the trees — and knew that to learn to read was as valuable as reckoning the vastness of our world. These poets hungered to understand the world while paradoxically knowing that complete understanding is impossible.
I'm ever more convinced that the world needs poets and myth-makers. Our world — both the human and the more-than-human — is poorer with those encounters with mystery. So I will end with an invitation: go and contemplate. What mysteries are calling you?
Works cited: Fereshteh, Andrea Sarubi. In the Company of Trees. Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Merwin, W. S. The Essential W. S. Merwin. Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass.