Sister Trees

“One thing I’ve learned in the woods is that there is no such thing as random. Everything is steeped in meaning, colored by relationships, one thing with another.”    ~Robin Wall Kimmerer

I have a thing for dead trees resting in the branches of living trees. I’m sure forestry management types consider this a potentially dangerous situation, but I find them beautiful. I cherish the music these tree partners make in the wind, almost like whale songs rising from the woods.

When I shared some pictures on social media, poet friend RC Wilson responded, ”Mark Twain indicated that a tree limb in the river that oscillated up and down in the current, like the arm of a man sawing wood, was called a sawyer. Seems like some of the music you describe is a rubbing sound caused by the wind moving the living tree so that the dead tree rubs against it like the bow of fiddle. So how about fiddlers? Yeah, ‘widow maker’ acknowledges the deadliness of that arrested potential energy, so watch out for widow makers when you set up your tent, but also listen for song of the fiddlers that trees have sung forever.”

Friend and former colleague Shay Seaborne wrote that she sees the living tree as a “tree death midwife.” I think she’s got something with that midwife observation. As Suzanne Simard, author of Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest, said in a recent NPR interview,

Dying is a process, and it takes a long, long time. It can take decades for a tree to die. In the process of dying, there’s a lot of things that go on. And one of the things I studied was where does their energy — where does the carbon that is stored in their tissues — where does it go?  …   About 40% of the carbon was transmitted through networks into their neighboring trees. The rest of the carbon would have just dispersed through natural decomposition processes … but some of it is directed right into the neighbors. And in this way, these old trees are actually having a very direct effect on the regenerative capacity of the new forest going forward.

This is a completely different way of understanding how old trees contribute to the next generations — that they have agency in the next generations.

One of my favorite current jobs is serving as editor of a publication called Braided Way: Faces & Voices of Spiritual Practice. A few years ago we published an unforgettable essay titled “Old Mother Tree” by Suprabha Seshan, who lives and works at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Kerala, India. She wrote,

There are as many stories as there are beings in this forest. Worms, ants, spiders, trees, epiphyllous liverworts, laterite nodules interpenetrated with alga, maggots, eggs, seeds, filaments of fungi; waters bearing beings, beings bearing water; lung cells, and skin cells talking to the air, and air talking to the leaves; multiplicitous symbionts forming composite entities, the whole forest is alive. There is nothing that is not part of life, where do the elements end and organisms begin?

…Around me are crowds of beings but there is no waste. Everybody is food for somebody else. The innumerable myriad beings transform their world, the forest. They create it and eat it, make love in it and die in it. Their bodies are worlds for other beings. Individual presences are palpable, even though there are so many. They are all apparently independent, and carrying on with their individual lives. They are also interdependent. This creates a whole. And a constancy.

I see these gentle partner trees from the highway, on hikes, and in the quiet backlots of what our species calls “undeveloped” lots. They fill me with a quiet peace each time.

“Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.”   ~ Robin Wall Kimmerer