American Linden tree.
(Img: Pubs Int’l, ltd.)
“A beautiful essay on deep listening…to trees.” ~ Jamie K. Reaser, Courting the Wild series co-editor (with whom, by the way, it was a pleasure to work). She has made the essay available for free now via a link on the publisher’s website.
‘…The maple advised, “Be like the linden tree. It bends and bends in every wind, yet its roots go down deep, deep, deep.”…’ ~ Tina Fields
That line, which Jamie chose to highlight, is the core of the story. That is the advice a maple tree gave me when I was nine years old, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Click here to read Learning From Our Elders at Hiraeth Press,
or just read it on this page, immediately below.
I hope you enjoy it.
LEARNING FROM OUR ELDERS:
by Tina Fields
Featured in Courting the Wild: Love Affairs with the Land, ed. Jamie K. Reaser, Hiraeth Press.
I was considered a weird kid. When I was nine, my frizzy, dark auburn hair was far from the stylish straight-and-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.) However, childrens’ cruelty toward the introverted social outcast can be brutal, and there 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 my dogs and 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.
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.
Arborial consciousness t-shirt design by Tina Fields
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. The 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. Life, motion, spirit abounded everywhere. I began to realize how how utterly accompanied I was in the world and how much I was missing because I had not been looking with truly aware, open-minded eyes. 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 amusingly, as soon as I stopped caring what anybody thought of me, I attracted good friends and even 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.
When searching for a photo of a linden tree to include here, I came upon a fun site about word etymology. Its logo is a musical pun in medieval illumination style. Who can resist that?
Bill Casselman’s entry about linden trees has a component that blew my mind. It turns out that the root of its name means the very quality that was touted to me by my maple tree!
“Linden, like aspen and like ‘the old, oaken bucket’ was originally an adjectival form of Old English lind ‘lime tree.’ Many Indo-European languages have this root *len whose prime meaning is ‘flexible’ in reference, to flexible fibres of the inner bark, much like the basswood-linden-tilia labels. Compare Old Norse lind, modern German gelinde ‘gentle’ but first meaning ‘supple, flexible, soft,’ Latin lentus ‘slow’ but first ‘supple, soft, lazy.’ Other English words containing the same root are lithe, and perhaps linen and line, as Eric Partridge suggests, from an ultimate Indo-European root *li ‘flax.’ This would make *len an extension of the flax root meaning ‘flexible as threads made of flax,’ then of rope or cord made of other materials, like the inner bark of the linden.” (emph. mine.)
Another tidbit that I find here of personal import is the linden’s genus, Tilia. My mother’s name was Tilla. And what do the best mothers give their children but the combo of deep, secure roots and supple, flying freedom?
I love it when synchronicities like this show up. The first one affords the mind-blowing confirmation that the tree was right.
On the one hand, duh! So when do trees lie? Yet on the other, how amazing is that to realize that this was not “mere” internal imagination, but actual communication. It’s so easy to default to lowest-common-denominator cultural normative thinking, and no matter how many times such things happen to me and how many times I’m shown that ‘there’s more in heaven and earth, Horatio,’ etc., I’m still always amazed.
Some might consider this focus on synchronicity to be overly magical thinking but to me, such occurrences signify that I’m in sync with the Tao; the flow of mystery in this planet and beyond, of which each of us is one small musical phrase. And since it makes the world more fun and encourages me to be even more engaged in life, why not think that way?
Go forth and listen to a tree now, and see if it changes you like it did me.
(My essay is linked & presented here with permission of Jamie K. Reaser, co-editor. This version printed here has a few changes from the one published by Hiraeth Press. Artistic license, y’know.)