Learning from Our Elders | Essay From Courting the Wild
LEARNING FROM OUR ELDERS:
Featured in Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with the Land
Edited by Jame K. Reaser
Ode to a Linden Tree
Dear Guest, sit down beneath my leaves and take your rest.
The sun will not strike you there, I do insist,
Though it beat from its noonday height, and its direct rays.
Should pierce such scattered shade as a tree bestows.
There, a cooling breeze is always blowing from the field;
there, nightingales and blackbirds their tuneful tales unfold.
It’s from my fragrant blossom that the timeless bees
Take the honey, which later ennobles your lordly feasts;
Whilst I, by my soft murmurs, can easily contrive
Th at gentle sleep should overtake the unsuspecting fugitive.
It’s true, I bear no fruit; but in my master’s eyes
My worth exceeds the richest scion of the Hesperides.
—the Squire of Czamolas
I was considered a weird kid. When I was nine, my frizzy, dark auburn hair was far from the stylish straightand-blonde. I didn’t care what my clothes looked like or whether they even matched, let alone what label adorned them. I was far from athletic. I wore glasses. I used big words, and understood their meanings. While other kids gossiped and invented small tortures for fun, I read, drew, and daydreamed. As an only child, I was poorly versed in mind games, and usually lost out long before I even realized the teasing had begun. When I grew up, I wanted to be a philosopher and a witch.
All of this added up to the bleak reality that I didn’t have many friends. Most of the time that was actually fine, as I enjoyed the freedom that came with solitude. Fortunately, I found myself to be pretty good company. But there were also challenges. Like many only children, I didn’t need to seek acceptance through pack conformity. (I knew it was a lost cause.) Sadly, such a hermit-like attitude can also activate the playground-pack dynamic in which mistrust and fear of difference manifests as cruelty toward those who somehow find a sense of individuated authenticity. Th ere were times when even my closest friends would turn on me in an attempt to keep their tenuous places in the schoolyard pecking order. When provoked, I wouldn’t fight with them; instead, this taunting made me turn even more solitary. The people centered life felt hard, and I often turned to the more-than human world for companionship.
In the park across the street from my childhood home, a pine and a maple welcomed me with open, low branches. The pine tree was enormous. I’d climb the rungs of its ladder self, rising as high as I could go, and cling to its wide but flexible trunk as the wind swayed us back and forth. It felt ecstatic to ride the wind like that, especially in a high storm. Upon my descent, I’d be covered with pitch and pitch-glued pine needles. My poor mother tried to freeze the hardened gluey gunk out of my hair and clothes with ice, only to give up in disgust time and time again, and hack it out of my lion’s mane with scissors. I endured all this with equanimity, as my tree time made me feel completely wild and at peace. The maple was smaller than the pine and oozed no pitch, so it was my most frequent tree-of-choice. However, it was also harder to scale, so I’d only go as high as its second branch. This was a comfortable branch; just the right shape for me. I could sit upon it for hours, and I would, too, especially when life seemed particularly hard.
Being aloft held its own surreptitious pleasures: People would walk by down below, and never know I was perched above them, overhearing everything. Giddy, I learned that most people rarely think to look up. By staying silent and observing other people’s behavior, I began to awaken to the dark holes in my own awareness, and decided to try to notice everything. Expanding my vision, I realized as the weeks passed how utterly accompanied I was in the world. Life, motion, spirit abounded everywhere. I began to wonder how much I was missing because I had not been looking with truly aware, open-minded eyes.
After particularly difficult days at school, I’d enter the maple in the way some church goers step into confessional boxes. Climbing up, I’d wrap my arms around it, lay my cheek against its rough-barked trunk, and tell it my woes and dreams. Sometimes I’d cry. Day after day, week after week, for a couple of years, I wept my sorrows into that tree.
And then one day, the tree spoke back.
This might sound crazy or like a make-believe story, but it really happened. I was so surprised that I nearly fell off the limb. I didn’t hear its voice with my ears. Rather, the message came in a word and picture combination that manifested in my mind, yet was not my own. The message didn’t feel like it originated from within me; the words didn’t sound like mine. In my gut, I knew they came from this tree. It was a full-blown couplet of image and speech, bearing a message I remember and live by to this very day.
The maple advised, “Be like the linden tree. It bends and bends in every wind, yet its roots go down deep, deep, deep.”
I had never even heard of a linden tree before, much less had any idea what one looked like or how it behaved. It would not be until twenty years later, while living in Europe, that I would meet my first linden tree and feel as though I’d been reunited with a long-lost, much beloved relative.
The ancient Greeks and the Slavs believed the goddess of love abided in the linden tree. Other Europeans, especially the Poles, regarded linden trees as symbols of divine power, family, faith, and valour. When Christianity arrived in the region, the linden became the tree of the Blessed Mother. In many a folktale, the Blessed Mother hid among the tree’s branches, waiting patiently to reveal herself to children.
The linden’s white blooms are fragrant, making them a favorite of bees and beekeepers. Bees produce wax for candles, honey for mead. Laws often protected the precious trees. To cut down a linden meant bad luck, perhaps even bringing tit-for-tat death to self or a family member. Such was the reverence for lindens.
The maple’s message to emulate this unknown cousin reverberated in me from that moment forward. Th e world was suddenly full of far greater possibility than I’d ever before imagined. A tree can speak? It’s conscious? What else is happening that I haven’t noticed or participated in? I set out and within—on a mission of curiosity and deeper exploration.
Before that day, my parents had taken me camping many times. Every time, they had exhorted me to “look at the beautiful scenery!” but I ignored them, preferring to read a comic book. No more. Suddenly the world was so much more than mere stuff . I went from being surrounded by dead matter to being part of a community of aware beings with desires, thoughts, and volition. I began to closely observe other animals, plants, rocks, clouds, and to consider how best to serve our collective well-being. I became interested in mysticism and spirituality, and began to explore comparative religions, looking for human wisdom about relating to the numinous in everything.
Whatever happened in the purely human realm took on far less import. Personality glitches or opinions of me, whether coming from other kids or my own self-doubt, seemed fleeting and insignificant. I was determined to be kind, but to also put human interactions into a much larger context. Like a tree, I stood in a forest of mystery and hope. And, as soon as I stopped caring what anybody thought of me, I attracted good friends and became popular.
Trees, each in their own way, have been my great teachers. They cradled me, brought me into contact with elemental excitement, and woke me up to the living world in all of its intense spiritual mystery and innumerable dimensions. They initiated me as a participant in life instead of a reluctant observer.
The influence of trees has made me a better, wiser, and more aware animal who lives fully in an expanded world sprouting with possibility, fun, and friendship. I will honor these elders of other species as long as I live. I hope that they will continue to teach us all and that we youngsters along the evolutionary scale will keep actively seeking out ways to listen.
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