I began talking to trees when I was a young child. Not long after, they started talking back.
It started when I was in 5th or 6th grade. My dad was an evangelist, a traveling preacher. We (my mom, my sister, and me) traveled with him and lived in an RV together. He would preach at a different church each week, every night of the week, and the rest of us would sing and play music. During the day, my parents homeschooled us in all the usual subjects, but my dad also instructed me in the ways of the wild.
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
—from As You Like It, (II.i.15–17)
by William Shakespeare
He would take me out to the woods and teach me about the animals and plants that inhabited my home state. The types of creatures you can find in the woods and swamps of Florida are so diverse, no one could ever run out of things to look for or look at, especially a young boy. Sometimes we hunted deer or squirrels as they ran through the palmetto bushes and scrub oaks (I was never a very successful hunter). Most times, however, we just went for walks in the woods, hoping to catch a look at those and other fauna: wild turkeys, foxes, opossums, raccoons, armadillos, snakes, frogs, lizards, mockingbirds, cardinals, blue jays, crows, buzzards, ospreys, and bald eagles, not to mention all the bugs! But the trees, the trees were everywhere, all the time. Even when the stomping of my boots scared all the wildlife away, the trees were there: standing, breathing, being.
The spectacular Live Oak presents a hauntingly beautiful display, with its arms spreading in all directions as if to embrace the other trees, always covered from head to toe with Spanish Moss like long, flowing, curly, gray hair. This is the perfect tree for climbing and building a makeshift tree house on a long, hot August day. (The featured image for this post is a photo of a Live Oak.)
I willingly confess to so great a partiality for trees as tempts me to respect a man in exact proportion to his respect for them.
—James Russell Lowell
Of course, the Cabbage Palm (or Sabal Palmetto), Florida’s state tree, is a very prominent part of Florida’s ecosystems. Most of the tourists only ever see it as landscaping, lining the sides of the roads, like so many telephone poles, but in the forests and swamps of my home state it is a staple fixture, ideally suited to bend and sway and absorb the winds of the thunderstorms that come in off the Gulf of Mexico every summer afternoon.
Then there are the Pine Trees. The most common varieties in central Florida (where I spent most of my childhood) were the Loblolly Pine and the Longleaf Pine (also known as Yellow Pine or Southern Pine). These trees are everywhere. They grow a lot faster than most other varieties of tree (so much so that they are sometimes compared to weeds), which makes them well-suited for the purposes of lumber and paper mills. They can be harvested and then re-grown relatively quickly. This is usually in the form of clearcutting, however, a brutal foresting method that leaves animals and birds without habitat and leaves the topsoil without living roots to keep it alive and intact.
Setting aside the issue of these trees as a commodity of the Florida economy, the Loblolly and Longleaf Pine Trees are tall, slender, graceful, and resilient. As a boy hunter, I watched the sun come up many times while perched twelve feet up a Pine tree, the wind slowly rocking my stand back and forth, waiting for an unsuspecting buck to walk beneath me. After an hour or two of being strapped to a tree at that height, you begin to feel more a part of the tree than separate from it.
There were lots more trees: magnolia, willow, cedar, maple, beech, mangrove, holly, elm, dogwood, cypress (gotta love those knobby knees sticking out of the water!), all with their own look, their own sound, their own feel, their own smell, and their own taste (yes, I tasted the bark and wood of many a tree branch). Each tree had its own soul, its own essence, what made it unique, what made it, it.
Rest is not idleness, and to lie sometimes on the grass under trees on a summer’s day, listening to the murmur of the water, or watching the clouds float across the sky, is by no means a waste of time.
We had a mobile home for a while in a small trailer park in Ocala, Florida, in the heart of the Ocala National Forest. We usually were on the road about three or four weeks in a row. Then, at the end of that small tour, we would retreat to our place in Ocala. Our little community was surrounded by forest in all directions, and the woods were a popular play-place for us kids. I had a friend who lived on my street. His name was Shane, and his trailer was at the very edge of the woods, so I would often walk the block to his house, see if he was home to play, and then walk through his back yard into the trees.
There were many times, however, when he was not there or couldn’t go out. But I wanted to be alone, so I would just keep walking. I would lose myself in my senses, lose myself amongst my new-yet-so-old friends. I walked with them, danced with them, spoke to them. They quickly gained my affection and my trust. They became my teachers, my mentors, never vocal yet somehow always speaking. I learned to listen; I learned to understand their language, and eventually to speak a little of it. Those woods were the first place I ever felt safe by myself, with no other humans around.
A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease. Every hidden cell is throbbing with music and life, every fiber thrilling like harp strings, while incense is ever flowing from the balsam bells and leaves. No wonder the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.
After our week-long breaks were done, we would pack up our things and head back out in the RV for another mini-tour of the State of Florida. I would say goodbye to my trees until the next time.
Of course, there were always trees wherever we went, and often times my dad would take me into the woods with him, and I would talk the treespeak with those strangers. But they weren’t my trees. My trees were back at the trailer park, behind Shane’s house, and I was always glad to see them when we returned home.
We eventually moved away, to another town in Florida, only a year or so after coming to the trailer park. Then, a few years later, we moved back to the Ocala area, but a to a different part of town.
One day, my parents indulged me and drove to the trailer park. I wanted to see my trees, to get out of the car and walk around a little while, to breathe in the oxygen they had created, and to give them the air I exhaled.
But all of the trees had been cut down. All of them. Hundreds of acres. My woods were gone.
So we just drove away.
It was hard to lose something like that, a place of belonging. I wouldn’t realize it until much later, but I understand now that they were not truly gone. They had just been transplanted, into me, and I have carried them since: in my heart, in my thoughts, and in my imagination. I remember all of the stories they told me, all of the lessons I learned from them, and all of the laughter we made together. In this way, they are very much still alive.
Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.
I still talk to trees. I have a special haunt here in Cleveland I was fortunate enough to find over fifteen years ago (Fletcher Park). It has a lot of great, old trees and showcases quite a diverse ecosystem. I try to make it there as often as I can for long walks and quiet communion. We have become friends, the park and I, and I hope it will be a long relationship.
Still, there are moments in my life when our boxed-in culture gets to me, times when I need a place to be alone, a place to feel safe, but I am not able to escape the stale air and the fluorescent lights and the plastic people. When that happens, I look inside myself, I find my trailer park woods, and I go for a walk.