Jane Goodall has written about her experience of “the being of trees” during the extended periods she spent in solitude in the forests of Goma. What an incredible thing it must be to encounter a tree as a being, and not just a wooden thing. Our usual sense of a tree is as a thing after all, animate, but just barely so. Rooted permanently in the same spot, baking away under the sun, soaking up the rain like a wooden sponge that expands as it manufactures more of itself.
There is something wondrous about the idea and experience of a being that sets it apart from the rest of the impersonal, oblivious landscape of things. The concept is not quite synonymous with life, for trees and plants are clearly living things, though life is necessary for a being to come into existence. Particular characteristics are requisite for a thing to attain the stature of being, such as soul and sentience and persona.
Undoubtedly, many people would view Ms. Goodall’s notion that trees could possess any such characteristics as a fantastical thing. I am inclined to believe her though. In the remotest places, where prolonged silence is the natural order of things, reality is free to configure itself in all sorts of uncommon ways. Remarkable creatures emerge from the forest to drink at the waterholes of such places.
Where does the hard boundary that segregates beings from things actually lie in the world? Is it possible that this boundary is essentially a projection of the human mind? Is it possible that all existence partakes of the qualities of being in some way? It may seem very “new-age”, but there has been no shortage of poets, mystics and visionaries who have experienced the world in exactly this way. Keats, to mention one such poet, spoke plainly about the personality of a wooden ball. And he meant what he said. According to Rumi, the sun taught the atoms to be lovers. Both poets belong to a tradition of creators that view the world from a radically different vantage – a vantage that abounds with being, stashed in every corner and crevasse.
This vantage may be just another projection, but it seems that projections of this sort wield an astonishing power – the power to breathe life into inanimate surroundings. It is this power that a creative soul projects onto the world, imposing a distinctly personal design upon reality, reaping the experience that flows from it.
I can’t lay claim to Ms. Goodall’s unique experience, but as I was watch the trees wave and dance on the wind at dusk, I must say they look as full of energy and joy as anything alive. Why shouldn’t they be? They are majestic, towering over the world of living things. They are self-sufficient, needing only sun, rain and soil to thrive and thrive. They experience no cold, they savor the rain, they sprout toward the sky, they wake to the sun. Yes, they are tied down, stuck deep into the earth, and yet their freedom is uncompromised, untainted.
One day I hope these beings will emerge from the deep forests where they have been hidden, disclosing themselves in all their magnificence and wonder to this being. Perhaps then, I will be able to see the forest through the trees; or would that be the trees through the forest? I’ll have to ponder that.