Branches of reason

If people can talk to plants, why can't plants talk back to people? Admittedly it is harder to imagine trees talking than, say, bears, mice, ducks, or dogs, which have eyes, ears, and mouths resembling our own; but why, come to think of it, not?

The subject has come to my mind because my new neighbor threatened to fell the giant yew tree which is on his property but shares a bit of its summer shade with mine.

As a defender of trees in general and this one particular, I've tried to change his mind, but for me he's been unyielding. He wants an unobstructed view , he says -- which he's paid plenty to have -- and a tidy lawn without debris shed by a tree past its prime. An ancient tree, he says, is an invitation to insidious insects and, perhaps, lightning, for all he knows. He has not been impressed when I've reminded him that, as a seedling, the yew was brought from England in somebody's boot over a century ago. It's just a shaggy old tree, he says, like billions of others, and as soon as he finds time this one has to go.

Thinking about it, it seemed to me that if Im were the tree, I'd speak up for myself, were a Tom, Dick, or Harry to come along with his handy tools to cut me down.

Who would dare to try to specify what form such an exchange might take? But if communication is the act of imparting/transmitting the nuances, contradictions, and mysteries of feelings, then speech is only a scant portion of it. With imagination, isn't anything possible? Silent words, perhaps, in an interior dialogue, sensed rather than spoken?

So far, so good.

In the demi-drama I am inventing, our principal characters are, in order of appearance: Treem . . . Arkenwyke Yew from Runnymede, evergreen, with scaly brown bark, scarlet berries. Its wood, almost as hard and well grained as mahogany, was used for longbows in the Middle Ages by English archers who defeated French knights. Its branches were twined into wreaths for the heads mourners. What a romantic past. Manm . . . young, impatient, impetuous with expectations of immediate gratification. Time is his enemy: either there's too little of it or it is leading him to a point of no return of which he doesn't wish to be reminded. The tree would seem to have the better chances; as an aesthetic and ecological necessity of civilization, the largest living thing on earth, its species have provided shelter, food, and the very oxygen mankind breathes. But the man has a power saw, a wood splitter, and the will to use them.

How in the world then could such a disparate pair be brought together for communication?

Perhaps all that is needed is one of those last-of-the-season surprise days, so rare and radiant that a young man, with normally a thousand places to go and a thousand things to do with noisy machines, will be moved to sit under his tree and contemplate the view he claims to value.

Perhaps once that young man has stopped long enough to observe a natural scene, his consciousness may emerge with it; he may become a part of it, see what he has not seen before: the way tree roots support soil, pine needles provide mulch, evergreen boughs protect earth from sun and winds. He may heed birds' nests, red squirrels romping in top branches, breaks in old bark where chipmunks hide, where butterflies winter in the pupa state. Only then is it possible for an old tree to emerge for him as the functional, irreplaceable entity it is. Only then can its relevance to life, to hism life, break into his awareness like a cataclysmic communication and a caution: this is a friend,m it says, don't part with it too soon: it takes a long time to grow another.

I'm not saying it's probable that my little playlet will have a happy ending . . . it's too soon to tell.

I amm saying that I saw my neighbor sitting under his yew tree the other day, and since then he hasn't been making noises about cutting it down.

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