It occurred to me this morning that you cannot lie to a tree. Please allow me the attempt to explain.
Since beginning The Overstory, by Richard Powers, trees have become my heroes among creation. I know that seems strange, but my fascination has only grown as I marvel at their presence on this planet and I ponder what they are up to. As one of the characters in the book might say, ”What they do?”
The more I learn about them, and even as I try to share what I’m learning, the more I realize that my learning is taking me backwards so that I can properly start at zero. My preconceptions have to be shattered and laid aside. They are obstacles. I am like a guitar student coming to a Master. ”I’d like to learn to play guitar,” I say. ”Show me what you can do,” says he. I begin to strum through chords I’ve learned, pleased to show off a few rudimentary elements. ”Stop!” he shouts, before I complete 4 bars. ”This is not guitar! We will need to unlearn these mistakes before we can begin.”
This is how it is with trees. To borrow a concept once more from the book,
Thinking you understand trees, you don’t see them. I mean, you see the shapes, but you don’t see them. It’s the same with the people you race each morning to get to work. You see them just enough to avoid hitting their cars when you change lanes. But you don’t have time to see the people. You don’t have time to look. You understand them. They are going to work just like you are. Knowing that tidbit is enough to stop the quest for any deeper enlightenment.
A weird thought that just wouldn’t go away
I was thinking on these things when I realized that you cannot lie to a tree. I know, that’s a weird thought to have. But you cannot lie to a tree in the same way that you cannot lie to God. Lies will not impact either one. They will remain unmoved, unbent, unbowed, unswayed. The wind will move a tree more than your lies will. Go ahead and try to prove me wrong.
I find that so satisfactory to contemplate. You can senselessly cut down a tree. Or you can treat it like a cash crop. You can scorch it with acid rain and blight. You can foolishly clear out the undergrowth that makes up its nutrient bed. But you cannot lie to a tree. In every conceivable way, a tree is above you. It is unmoved. It is unflappable. A tree is nothing but living, breathing, branching, spreading, sharing truth. No liars need apply.
Juxtapose that with what we call civilization. On the one hand, a forest is a collection of beings so willing to give and receive truth from one another that they become one thing. A Douglas Fir cannot fool an Aspen that it is something else. The Aspen does not pretend to be a Maple. The Oak has leaves that sample and absorb the off-gassed, chemical condensates of its neighbors, and shares with them in turn. Every tree in the wood shares carbon with every other tree underground through the mycelia of their root structures, assisted by fungi, the most un-heralded, unseen, world-class mediators and facilitators of the planet. The network of sharing is so complete, so entwined, that the forest becomes an organism in its own right. Trees have nothing to gain from pretentious self-centeredness. They have everything to gain from being exactly what they are.
The veneer of civilization and culture is sophisticated fabrication
By contrast, human civilization is hardly anything but lies. Lies that appear in facebook posts, instagram stories, and snaps. Tweeted lies. Spoken lies. Documented lies. How rare to find someone not trying to be more than they are, or not trying to be someone else – or wishing they were. We drive cars we can’t afford to pretend we have more money. We mortgage our lives to dwell in houses that are shoddily and hastily built; they have no architectural finesse, or aesthetic beauty, or soul whatsoever. They do fit neatly on the 3rd of an acre lot sandwiched between two neighbors you smile and wave at, but whose names you do not know. But for God’s sake can they just please keep their lawn mowed?
No, human culture is a polished veneer of appearances. Its strength is not deep connection, but deep deception. You are more deeply committed to your favorite celebrity (who you will never meet) than to your neighbor. We cannot share life the way trees do because we cannot be trusted to share equally. I wish I had the talent to paint in words the absurdity of the tree-equivalent of Elon Musk, or Marc Zuckerburg, or any one of the despicable Kardashians.
Here’s a thought: If you picture the canopy of trees in a forest having an average height that represents their individual net worth, the average height would be 88* feet tall. The Elon Musk tree would tower 23,525,920** feet above the average height of the forest. That’s a large number. Correction. It’s an obscene number. It is twenty-three million, five-hundred twenty-five thousand, nine-hundred twenty-three feet above the eighty-eight foot ceiling of the forest average. In other words 800 Mt. Everests stacked on one another, or 800 times higher than the cruising altitude of a commercial jet.
That Elon tree aberration is 4455.66 miles above the average tree. That’s a mutation! (That is farther than the distance from New York, New York to Anchorage, Alaska). The Bezos, Zuckerburg, and Buffett trees would also tower way above the ”average height” canopy. Can you even imagine what that would look like from space?
Trees aren’t greedy – They’re more honorable than people
No tree would be so ashamedly greedy. Humans have no such limitations on either shame or greed. Trees are way more honorable than people. Trees exist to scrub poison out of the atmosphere, turn it into biomass and energy, and give it back in the form of life to everything else on the planet. The immorally rich exist to squeeze life out of everyone ”beneath” them, use them for their own ends, and excrete the poison of selfishness with its envy, lust, and competition, all while being loved and praised and enamored for doing so. Talk about insanity writ large…
You will live your entire life and maybe know one or at most two other people. I mean really know them. But you will be coldly calculating to make sure you get as much as you give in every transaction with everyone else. You will cultivate a persona for work, for your kids, for your spouse. Then you will put on a face for the public at large. You will go to church and put on a religious face for the members, and for God. While there, you will have the uneasy feeling that God sees through your piety. He sees beneath the veneer. The degree to which you allow Him to see, will be the degree to which you experience the unfathomable bliss of love undeserved.
A classroom for a better way
Go to the woods. The trees will release pheromones to bribe you into carrying pollen for them, or maybe just to get you to stand nearby and breathe for a while. But go there and tell them your stories, and show them your curated life with its glamorous photos of the vacation that will take you ten times longer to pay for than the time you spent enjoying it. Show them your checkbook register, or your stock portfolio.
Go to the woods and look. See if you can spot a tree trying to seduce its neighbor. See if you find one trying to impress. Find one that is hustling its neighbor, or conning it. Especially, look for the trees trying to oppress and exploit and abuse and use their surrounding, neighbor trees. You know, the ”hard-working” trees just trying to climb the ladder and get ahead.
You won’t find any. No, they just stand still, wave in the breeze, reach and stretch, and branch, and take in what’s there, and give back to everything around them, and practice being invisible.
The Takeaway: I learned these truths by reading fiction
You cannot lie to a tree. But you can lie to yourself and to others. You can tell yourself there’s nothing to learn here. Trees aren’t people, you say. No, thank God, they’re not. I learned all these things about trees, their essential truths, their fundamental importance, and the dire emergency they truly face, by reading a work of fiction. That’s the power that fiction has to reveal truth and change lives!
*The dataset for tree heights found the average height was 87.6 feet (88′).
** Elon Musk’s net worth is approx. $185B, the average American net worth is the whopping, $692K (which seems very high). 185B/692K=267,341 (this is how many times more Musk’s net worth is than the avg. If $692K = 88’, then $185B = 88 x 267,341 = 23,526,008’ (the height of the Musk tree) 23,526,008 – 88 = 23,525,920’ (The height in feet of Musk’s tree above the canopy average height)