Mankind strikes an unholy bargain at birth. The contract reads: "Give me life and I will agree to death." We awaken in life to find ourselves trapped on a boat floating down an uncharted river with a horrible waterfall at its end. We possess no map to tell us where we shall face the falls, but we know the falls are there. We know no one ever survives the trip and we are afraid, yet we cannot get off the river. We can only moment-by-moment, attempt to avoid its treacherous rapids, its hazardous back currents. Despite the exquisite beauty of the river and its placid bends, often we fail to enjoy the trip for we know that just ahead, perhaps around the next bend, we shall face the falls, the horrible falls.
I have lived alone for most parts of my life and have often felt lonely, even though a host of living things surround me. My loneliness as always is born of my separation from myself, and therefore my separation from all other living things as well. I remember when the summer is gone, when the robins had gone, and when the shy slate-colored finches had gathered and gone. When the blue harebells have dried and twisted toward the earth, and when the parachute seeds of the dandelions in the meadows have long since blown away, their stems stand straight and stiff and the leaves of the elk thistle are like curled brown memories. This is when I feel the sharp teeth of loneliness gnawing at my heart, and I try to comfort myself with reason, but reason is not too often comforting.
We are all of us alone, I reasoned. Alone we struggled from the womb, and alone we float down the inescapable river of life. Alone we face the falls, the horrible falls, where alone we shall wheeze out our last mortal gasp. I looked out the window then at a slender elm tree alone in the garden, and something compelled me to walk out to it. Suddenly I wanted to talk to a tree.
To talk to a tree is strange, is it not? Yet no one thinks it odd for man to speak to something he cannot see or touch, something he calls "God". No one thinks it bizarre that we listen too and are impelled into strange actions, like buying a certain soft drink because of an image on TV, which we cannot touch. Yet if we were to shake hands with a tree, something real with its roots in the ground, something that lives, grows, and rustles in the wind, something in which living birds nest and hatch their young. If we were to touch a tree and to speak to it, we might be considered very peculiar indeed. The tyranny of viewpoint, most often not our own, constricts us as surely as a horse’s hobbles.
The Indians thought it ordinary to communicate with animals, plants and trees. Walking Buffalo of the Stony Indians Tribe in Canada said, "did you know that trees talk? They talk to each other and they’ll talk to you if you listen. I have learned a lot from trees, something about the weather, something about animals, and something about the Great Spirit."
I’m sure that my neighbours would have thought me quite daft had they seen me talking to this tree. But I was alone, and alone one has the right by that reason, to do as one pleases. Alone one is free, or ought to be, and so I thought, I shall see how it is to speak to a tree. I looked around first just to make sure none of my neighbours where around, but no one was watching and no one would hear me. Yet I had a difficult time bringing myself to do this simple, harmless thing.
We are as free as the barriers we have constructed around our minds permit us to be. Indeed, as we perceive it, insanity may be simply the elimination of all of the mind’s barriers. We know that trees do not talk, but how do we know? I might conclude that my neighbours also do not talk. I have never heard them speak, but that is because I have never spoken to them.
If I judged the ability of the human race to communicate based on my experience with my neighbours, I should likely conclude that the species is mute. In the same way, since I have never spoken to a tree, how could I possibly expect a tree to speak to me? Still, this was indeed strange behavior, this talking to trees, and I decided I would not mention it to my friends and family, who already thought me strange enough.
I looked around once more to make sure that no one was watching. Then suddenly I reached out and grasped the lowest limb of the tree, like one shaking hand’s. To my horror, I heard myself speaking out loud. "Tree," I said, "I just dropped over to say hello." It was easy. There was no parting of the clouds, no voice descended upon me saying, "Now you have finally done it! I have patiently endured your faithless pronouncements against me, and against my faithful, but talking to trees – this is finally too much!"
"Tree," I said, "I’ve seen you almost every day outside my window, and have often admired you, but for some reason I’ve never stopped over. People are like that, you know." The tree said nothing back, but I had a sense that somehow my words were being soaked up and listened too. I’ve been with people many times and said things that never were soaked up, things that were important to me, but when I offered them to others, just sort of lay there in a puddle ignored.
"You’re lucky to have your friends with you all the time," I said to the tree, "and you’re kids and your family. You have your roots all tangled up together and your capillaries all entwined, you’re cheek to cheek with those who are closest to you all summer long. And when the wind blows, your leaves caress each other. Must be quite something to have ten thousand leaves to feel with."
I looked up. The tree’s leaves had already fallen. After a minute I just came out with it, "I felt lonely today, that’s why I’m out here speaking to you," I said, and the tears came to my eyes. I didn’t feel ashamed crying in front of a tree, although I have always felt shame in crying in front of people. "Thanks for listening to me" I said. "That’s what friends are for" and gave the tree a loving pat. But the tree didn’t answer.
"I don’t think people understand me," I said. Still the tree didn’t answer. But in the utter silence of the garden I heard a clear response. We must each find our own answers, the tree and I. That is freedom. A tree’s answers would not do for me, for it moves with the wind and with the seasons. Its feet are in the soil and it’s part of the earth. Its wisdom is, perhaps, too great to be imparted to the likes of me. Yet somehow I felt very wise after having listened to the tree.
"Thank you tree" I said, "it helps a lot to have a true friend to talk to." Then before I left, I asked the tree the one question of all questions: "Tree" I said, and waited until I knew I must have its attention, "what is the meaning of life?’ Again there was a long silence. "Speak up, dear friend, for how I need to know."
The tree said nothing.
"Please!" I said.
Still it said nothing.
And then suddenly I knew the answer, although I have since forgotten it.