Instead of looking at the trees, look at the person who looks at the trees.
—Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature
I remember shutting my eyes to hear the soft wind sigh in the fine fringe of wire-thin needles, gathered five to a bunch, soughing high overhead. I remember closing my eyes to the sky to feel the breeze off the lily-pad-skinned lake brushing across my lids, the bark biting against my back, the roots tossing beneath my thighs. I remember: leaning against the white pine, the one growing from the tip of the rocky point since before my great-great-grandfather bought the family land, lying with the pine to catch my breath before we laid my uncle to rest. I was there to ask what the fact of death meant, how to live with it, and I had brought with me a book—Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods—that I hoped held answers. It was 2003.
Many of us, recently, have been turning to books about trees. Titles such as The Wild Trees, The Miracle of Trees, The Power of Trees, The Book of Trees, Seeing Trees, Ancient Trees, Wise Trees, Witness Tree, Trees of Life, Trees in Paradise, The Life and Love of Trees, The Social Life of Trees, The Long, Long Life of Trees, and two different books called, simply, The Tree. Titles like Oak, Ginkgo, Mahogany, Sequoia, Hemlock, Ponderosa, American Chestnut, White Pine, The Golden Spruce, Looking for Longleaf and Gods, Wasps, and Stranglers—a delightful read dedicated to the fig. There are histories: 196 of them published since 2000, according to the Forest History Society’s database. And the photo books, many galleries’ worth, enough to clutter acres of coffee tables. It is a fact that one could pass seasons skimming these stacks without ever grazing the covers of the recent novels and chapbooks and children’s stories, the field guides and scientific papers and online articles, all of them dedicated to the tree, all of them published in this new century, more of them coming every week.
Perhaps this windfall was foreordained, a prophecy put down in the past’s indelible dust: trees, wherever we have made a home beneath spreading limbs, trunk, crown and leaves, transfix. A pair of them, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, were supposed to have witnessed the fall of humans and the beginning of history. It was in the shade of a fig tree that Siddhartha found enlightenment, becoming the Buddha; for Hindus, it’s the living figure of Brahma the Creator, Shiva the Destroyer and Vishnu the Preserver, all braided together. The Great Tree of Peace—a white pine—was, for the Haudenosaunee, living proof of commonwealth and coexistence, while the Norse knew that the nine worlds of their cosmology were held together by an enormous ash called Yggdrasil. A hemisphere away, baobabs, those sylvan archives slung across sub-Saharan Africa, have been patiently accreting generations of human meaning for far longer than anyone can remember.