This was first published in Sentient Times, 2002 April/May issue. The last issue of this magazine was published in Feb. 2008, but a dedicated team is keeping the archived issues available online. Highly recommend that you read past issues while they are still available: http://www.sentienttimes.com/past_issues01t.html
The following is “my” article, and I am grateful to the folks at Sentient Times who kept it archived so I may share with you:
On Talking with Trees: A Call to Rediscover the Intelligence in Nature
Trees do not stand like tall sentinels, impassive and silent. Nor is talking with them like a telephone conversation, “What’s up? How are the kids?” Trees and the spirit that comes through them can register and reflect every nuance of human emotion. When we approach them with clear intentions and use our whole bodies to listen, they can reveal brilliant insights or assist in overcoming personal or even planetary challenges. We can experience openings of our heart that take us beyond the confines of place and time. We can access wisdom far beyond our limited intellects. It’s more like a conversation with the deepest parts of ourselves, crying out for discovery. In Talking With Nature, Michael J. Roads hears: “Do not look for separation. The I that calls is not separate from the I which responds. To those who are aware of their sensitivity and are determined to cultivate and encourage their finer feelings, life calls in many varied ways.”
More and more of us hear the call of the life that pervades the living body of the Earth, and recognize that we are inextricably intertwined. This call resounds with urgency from two sources: the seriousness of the ecological crisis, and sacredness of the human evolutionary challenge. As we all know, unless we harness some extraordinary intelligence and take appropriate action, we face further degradation of our environment, threatening not only the diversity of species, but the planet’s ability to sustain life. What we do to nature we do to ourselves. In overcoming the false beliefs of separation from or superiority to nature, we also honor and nurture the human spirit. Achieving cooperation with nature moves us to a new level of relationship to ourselves, each other and the planet. As Machaelle Small Wright discovered at her Perelandra Nature Research Center in Virginia, co-creative solutions may not always make sense from a human perspective, but they promote balance from nature’s perspective. Connecting in this way may help us access the desperately needed intelligence from our own backyards.
Humanity has always known the intelligence to be found in nature, but it is a knowing that has mostly been lost in our modern society. Until the 17th century, Europeans also believed that there was an innate spirit that animated everything, and was the cause of all physical forces. Then Descartes proposed that the universe can be described by objective mathematical formulas, and that mind is separate from matter. Newton, Copernicus and others discovered the laws of gravity and physical principles to explain celestial and earthly phenomena. Along with eliminating superstition and paving the way for massive technological achievements, science became the reason to discard the concept of the divine spirit in all things as well. Nature was viewed as a mechanical device, with no life or intelligence. It could be dominated and exploited solely for human purposes.
In the 20th century, discoveries in physics have shown the promise of overturning the mechanistic view and supporting the view of nature as a conscious and intelligent partner. Physicists since the 1920’s had to question mechanical determinism because of the challenge of quantum mechanics. Physicists in the 1970’s and 80’s inferred that reality includes consciousness in an underlying indivisible wholeness, not bound by space or time, echoing the teachings of sages, seers and mystics from ancient times till now.
Biology is not far behind. Indeterminacy and chaos in biological systems have supplanted the belief in the clockwork predictability of nature. Eminent biologist Rupert Sheldrake has proposed the existence of morphogenetic fields, similar to ancient concepts of angels and spirits, to account for nonlocal patterns of learning and the development of organisms. All these discoveries, theories and inferences raise questions about the nature of physical reality that cannot be answered in the realm of science, indicating that the universe and the various systems within it may behave in a conscious, intelligent and purposeful manner.
Many hear this as a call to rediscover the intelligence in nature, while others are still conditioned by the belief that seeing is believing. Along with wind and radio waves, the spirit and consciousness within and behind all life are also unseen, and it is foolish to dismiss them and their power simply because they are intangible. The inferences of scientists and the experience of mystics indicate we are virtually swimming in an ocean of unseen intelligent forces. There is nothing in the manifested world that does not participate in that intelligence and we can take this opportunity to align ourselves with it. Our belief systems can close our minds to this untapped reservoir or we can build the bridges to reconnecting with it consciously.
There is no need to limit our explorations to trees, but there are good reasons to begin with them first. Florence A. Newhouse in Angels of Nature tells us that next to humans and animals, trees are the greatest life forms on this planet. The intelligence of most of them is akin to humans, and often far greater, especially for large and old trees and evergreens. As Dorothy Maclean records in To Honor the Earth: Reflections on Living in Harmony with Nature: “Large trees are essential for the well-being of the Earth. No other can do the job they do. They and humanity each represent the apex of a particular form of life, and you can gain much by association with them. It is no accident that the Buddha is said to have found enlightenment under a tree.”
The ancestors of nearly everyone now alive held trees in reverence, and gained not just numerous material benefits but also notable spiritual ones. Nathaniel Altman, author of Sacred Trees, reports how in Native American and other cultures, trees are the home of the gods and guardian spirits or angels. Even in the Bible, they are the source of voices, visions, dreams and healing. Throughout the world they convey wisdom, oracles, spiritual guidance and provide protection. Certain old, large trees in West Africa play the role of mediators in ascertaining justice. The Native American Hidatsa people valued the assistance of the cottonwood tree in resolving conflicts. Many of these traditions attribute people’s experiences to the presence of an intelligent spirit dwelling in or speaking through the tree.
Talking with trees may seem strange to those who have lost their ties to their own ancestral heritage or who have not yet made the paradigm shift to a more inclusive awareness. Talking with trees, if done respectfully and with positive intent, can help make that shift. It is best to start with a tree that one has planted and cared for oneself, or one that is beloved to the community, or an ancient or large tree in an undisturbed forest.
I invite everyone to take these steps to start:
Attitude. The attitude of appreciation and reverence to a tree elicits the greatest response, since in honoring the tree as a source of intelligence, one opens the doorway to communication. Respect, gratitude, humility, non-attachment, compassion, noble motives and an open heart enhance the opportunity to build a relationship. Clarify intentions. Have no expectations—they create tensions in the body/mind which interfere with subtle experience. Relax.
Approach. The aura of a tree extends quite a distance from its trunk. Become aware of the subtle changes in your body, which your aura transmits to you through your nervous system, as you approach a tree, and your auras begin to interact. Your own personal signals may be unique. Be sensitive to them. Trust them.
Physical Contact. I prefer open palms, hugging with both arms, my cheek against the bark, or leaning and letting the tree support some of my weight. If the tree is growing to make a convenient setting place, I express appreciation for the opportunity to sit.
Whole Body Listening. Create internal quiet, calming mental chatter. Use not just the ears, but all of the senses, and the heart. Listen inside for the corresponding chords of resonance within the body/mind.
Connect. Breathe into and with the tree, sensing its rhythm and matching it, identifying and becoming one with the tree, extending oneself through the roots down into the earth, and up into the branches, reaching for the sun with one’s leaves. You can feel this process or visualize it. Children have no trouble doing this. Be like a child.
Be Patient. Do not compare your experiences with others’, or judge them from your expectations. That keeps us experiencing separation. Every person is different, and every tree is also different! Experiment with different trees to find a match for your needs.
Explore and Expand. Cultivate a relationship with a particular tree. Become aware of its rhythm, and respect your own in this process. From a place of clarity, start posing questions and waiting patiently for answers, trusting that they will come. Some people find that a picture comes into their head, a snatch of a song, a scent, an internal sensation, an impression of energy that they can form into words or visual images. Allow your own sensory system to direct your process. Bring your notebook, sketch pad, or tape recorder. Some find that kinesthetic modes of communication work best for them, using pendulums, muscle testing or kinesiology to answer yes/no question (see the Perelandra Garden Workbook by Machaelle Small Wright).
From early childhood, many people have fond memories of a favorite tree they liked to visit for calm reflection, solace, or creative inspiration. The good news—that part of childhood doesn’t have to be over. The challenging news—it may take work to overcome cultural conditioning. Enjoy the creative exploration or rediscovery of the intelligence in trees. A Chinese proverb says, “Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.”