Have you ever wondered why it is that you can be unmoved by the sight of a homeless person on the street but want to cry your heart out when you see a TV commercial featuring an abused puppy or hungry child half way around the world? Or why it is that in order to feel more connected to other people you need to spend time away from them, off in a secluded wood or empty park for a little while?
I suppose no one answer fits every person’s way of seeing the world. But I know for me that I have often experienced my deepest heart openings at times when I have been lonely and in places where I have been alone. Not totally by myself, but absent other people or soft fuzzy needy animals. There my companions have no reptilian or mammalian brain systems — they are principally the trees and the stones.
My connection to trees is one to which I ought to pay more attention. For most of my life I didn’t think a lot about trees as I walked through the city streets unless I had some practical reason — say, a downed branch cutting across my path. That wasn’t very connected of me, and too often it’s still a shortcoming. So I’ve been working to become more mindful of my relationship with the world of trees in particular, one genus at a time.
Elms are of particular interest to me at the moment. Looking at pictures of elm trees, they are so very different in appearance. The “Preston Twins” in Brighton, England, are absolutely wondrous. Other varieties are no less intriguing. And the “Biscarrosse Elm” in France is horror-movie scary with branches appearing like bony arms stretching out to grab you.
It’s no wonder that in Western mythology there have generally been two different traditions with regard to the elm tree (if you can believe Wikipedia’s entry on Elm). The positive tradition elevates the tree to the level of Paradise, admiring it as connected to the blood of life, the roots of the vineyards. And in the darker tradition poets link the tree with death, writing verses about elm trees upon gravesites and telling of superstitions that the tree is an ill omen because it doesn’t bear edible fruit.
It sounds about right that we have such different perspectives about the elm tree… and there’s something about both the golden and shadowy views of the elm tree that resonate for me. In times when I want to be alone with the trees, the elm gives me the feeling of being with an older person moreso than many other trees. There’s something about its shape, opening out from a sturdy trunk, that is human-like. The spirit of the tree seems connected to that of the Elder — even the names Elm and Elder start the same way. Elders may be wise and gentle and kind … or crotchety and cranky. And so trees too have personalities connected to them, which we intuit from their appearance.
Our relationship with an old tree may begin with the realization that from their perspective, we are but lads and lasses. They have been around longer and have the bark rings to show for it. We may speak of them wanting things from us or for us; many want our well-being and growth. Others, as Tolkien observed, seem to bear anger within their trunks and branches. Those trees also have lessons for us, and we can gain insights by observing them as if the Earth itself were speaking to us (which he/she/it is).
Nature spirits are real. Trees have lessons to teach us. Spiritual enlightenment does not force us to grow out of animism, it teaches us that we must grow beyond our exclusive identification with animism. Once we learn of the intelligence and personality within the Earth and its living beings that is a face of the proto-personal essence of the divine, we forget this lesson at our peril. At the very least, we may lose track of the simple ways that trees can open our hearts, connect us deeply to our grief, and generate longing for connection to the Source of All.
Photo Credit: John Constable, ‘Study of an Elm Tree’