by Julie Trimingham
Jesus spit on the blind man’s eyes, and put his hands upon him, and asked him what he saw. The blind man looked up and said, I see men as trees, walking.
I see men as trees.
I’m not talking about the tree of life, the world tree, Yggdrasil, the bodhi tree under which Buddha sat, the tree on which Christ died, I’m not talking about trees as metaphor. I am not talking about tree spirits: dryads, meliae, kodama, and the others, or the walking trees of Middle Earth or apple-throwing trees in the Land of Oz. I’m not talking about how Merlin, the wizard of Arthurian legend, at the end of his human life became a pine tree, or how Daphne, the nymph trying to avoid being raped by Apollo, was turned into a laurel.
I see men as trees, walking. If men were trees, if our cities were forests, our towns dense groves, what kind of world would we then make?
When my son was an infant and started to cry, I’d take him out under the Japanese maple. The green light captive in the leaves would calm him. Or maybe it was the aerosols, the chemical clouds that trees release into the air. These arboreal perfumes are believed to make people feel healthier and happier. The Japanese invented a phrase for walking through the woods to enhance well-being: shinrin-yoku, or forest bathing. These same aerosols seed clouds to make rain and cool our planet down.
Aerosols are tree cafe chatter, you’re not quite sure which tree is saying what. A more sophisticated communications system, tree-to-tree talk, lies underground. The mycorrhizal network, also known among scientists unafraid of bad puns as the Wood Wide Web, is the connecting of various tree roots to one another by fungal filaments. The trees give necessary carbon to the fungi, the fungi reciprocate with food and drink, and act as carriers for chemical messages, nutrient love letters. A tree under attack by aphids or fire in one part of the forest can sound the alarm to other trees far away.
Among the ancient Greek, among the Druids, among medieval Italian witches, trees spoke with the gift of prophecy. The oaks, the rowans, they talked. They divined the future.
I see men as trees.
Mrs. Queen comes to the door of her brown trailer, she wears a flowery dress. The couch on which she takes a seat is also flowered. Two chihuahuas, one big, one little, sit beside her, each like the arm of a chair. A calico curls up close by. The green house where she was raised up by her grandma is within spitting distance, but it’s overgrown with ivy, morning glory, blackberry.
I’m here to talk to Mrs. Queen about her walnut tree, the one that was recently cut down. She grew up with that tree, she and her brothers and sister and the family dog used to climb up and sit in the crotch of the tree. All of them at once, the tree was so big.
Her grandparents had long ago taken a trip to California, picked up two walnuts off the ground, pocketed them, planted them when they got back home. One of the nuts sprouted, and grew into the great tree. The walnut watched Mrs. Queen grow, and then watched as she raised her own children, her own grandchildren, her own great-grandchildren. Like her grandmother before her, Mrs. Queen was the one who milked the cows, who watched the children. Her husband played the guitar.
Was it your grandfather or your grandmother? I asked her. Do you know which one picked up the walnuts and planted them?
Mrs. Queen laughs and slaps my knee. My grandma for sure, she says. Ain’t no man gun pickuppa couplenuts.
The tree from which a seed comes is also known as a mother tree. Studies have shown that a mother tree will recognize her own, her seedlings. She will fend off the growth of other trees nearby to make space for her children. When dying, she will send her kin nitrogen, minerals, food. She will give them everything she has.
Ain’t no man.
Charles Darwin, after Origin of the Species, turned his attention to plants. He believed that trees were like very slow-moving, upside-down animals, burying their root-brains deep in the dirt, and flashing their sex bits up above. There’s a painting in Italy from the year 1265, it shows women dancing around a tree. Instead of buds or blooms, the tree has penises growing from its branches. The women dancing around the penis tree are presumed to be witches.
Ain’t no man. But no woman, neither.
A mother tree may or may not be female. Sometimes a male tree will pollinate a female tree, sometimes a tree contains both male and female parts and will self-pollinate, sometimes a tree will forego any kind of sex at all and simply clone itself.
Ain’t no man.
A tree is not a man. People like to kvetch about anthropomorphism, saying that it’s bad science, bad writing, bad form, when we talk about a tree as if it’s a human mother. But don’t we go too far the other way, and forget that being human is only one of many ways of being alive? There are so many ways to be a person. So many ways to be alive. And to God or to the Creator, to any and all goddesses, to science or to aliens, we carbon-based Earth-bound vertical life forms, trees and men, may well, at times, resemble one another.
Mrs. Queen’s walnut held five kids and a dog. Much of my own girlhood was spent up in a grapefruit tree. The neighborhood where we lived in Phoenix was once a large orchard. We had five trees in our backyard, their trunks painted white to prevent sunburn. There was one in particular I liked, I’d climb up and arrange my limbs within its limbs. I’d take a book with me and read for hours.
Books are made from trees, and somehow our idea of learning and remembering seems twined with the idea of trees, who live for so long and have seen so much. Library comes from liber, the inner bark of trees. The word folio comes from the Latin word for leaf. Etz Chaim is Hebrew for Tree of Life, and also, figuratively, refers to the Torah.
Trees can live for hundreds, even thousands, of years. Very old trees are often hollow inside, we can’t count their rings, so many trees may be older than we think they are. But we know that there are yews, pines, giant sequoia, sacred fig, cedars, junipers, oaks, olive trees and others that predate Jesus. These are trees that were seeds during the time of the kingdoms of Kush and Nubia and Egypt and the Land of Punt, these are trees that were saplings when Sumerians started writing, when Stonehenge was being built, when early civilizations in Iran, Peru, and the Indus Basin were awakening. There is a spruce in Sweden whose root system, if not the individual stem, is almost 10,000 years old, as old as the period of climatic stability that has allowed our own species to flourish. Our lives must seem insect-like flying by before the trees.
I see men as trees, walking.
The father-in-law I never met considered trees to be the vegetal scum that covers the earth between ice ages. This was a man who loved trees, he was a forester, but he was also a person who measured time geologically. Who understood the fleetingness and delicacy of the living world.
I see men as trees, walking.
I see men walking, and most of them are blind.
I see men spitting.
I see men spitting and shitting and spewing and smoking.
I see men choking. The forests choking, the rivers drying, the salmon dying, the killer whales don’t have enough to eat.
I see the world heating up and up and up.
It’s too hot and we can’t fucking breathe.
Thank god for trees, they clean and cool the air.
I see men as trees, walking.
I see trees as men, standing.
Still standing after all that we’ve done.
I am an immigrant to Coast Salish land, where tradition has it that tree-people were the first people, then salmon-people, killer-whale-people, crow-people and others. After a while, human-people came along. The trees were teachers. The trees spoke. And the people listened.
There was a time when many of us throughout the world listened to the cedars, the oaks, the rowans. Listening to the trees does not mean that we didn’t cut them down. We did. The trees gave us food, clothing, shelter, boats, weapons, tools, and fire. We knew that we were nothing without the trees. Listening meant that we took what we needed, and were grateful.
Some of us have stopped listening to the trees, some of our cultures have shifted or died. But still. We can take it upon ourselves, as the poet ee cummings would have it, to wake the ears of our ears, to open the eyes of our eyes.
This world is bruised and marked and hardened. But still, it flickers between what it is and what might be. We must imagine what we cannot yet see, or can glimpse only through the cracks: a world, a society, made up of all these different kinds of people, of tree, animal, and human people, learning the ways of one another and of the air, the water, the living dirt.
Say Jesus spits in your eye. What do you see? What do you say?
Filmmaker-turned-writer. Degree in painting from Yale. JULIE TRIMINGHAM has written a novella (Mockingbird, published by MP Publishing USA); a fictional travelogue (Way Elsewhere, published by Lettered Streets Press); and a number of essays published in Numéro Cinq online magazine. She’s told stories at The Moth (Seattle). She also spent a few years fighting (i.e establishing a non-profit, a website, and a publicity campaign) a proposed local coal port, which would have been built on traditional Coast Salish land; this experience has informed almost all of her recent work.
Photo: “Trees and Shadows” by John Morgan