One of my favorite bloggers — and favorite people — Margie Oomen of Resurrection Fern shared a site where you’ll find an audio file called ”A Singing Yeast Cell”. Relatively new technology has enabled scientists to record the sounds that individual cells make as they go about their normal life processes. It is as enthralling as any humpback song I’ve ever heard, and eerily similar. There’s something about it that is completely familiar — I feel as though I know that song in my very bones, hard as that may be to accept on the surface.
And I suppose I do know that song in my bones. One of the reviewers at the site says, “Every living being has a voice”. The question has always been what constitutes a being? Until recently, the only answers available were faith-based. Now, however, science is gathering a rolling snowball of evidence that perhaps all things — literally every thing — may well be, in its own way, sentient. Able to respond to, interact with, and even shape its environment. Never hard for me to believe but how I love the mounting scientific validation!
What astounds me is that so many don’t hear the songs. My sister, Judi, stood as witness this week to the cries of trees:
“As soon as I rounded the corner of my shop and noticed the city’s tree-removal equipment and a half dozen men with chainsaws, I began to feel sick in the pit of my stomach. By the time I got out of my car, the feeling was full-blown nausea and a serious flight reflex. It was all I could do to walk up the sidewalk, averting my eyes from the devastation going on across the street. Three gorgeous old ficus trees were slated for removal because they were too big, too old, with too many roots misbehaving. The sick feeling I was having could have been stress — I seriously didn’t want those trees removed. But when I “listened” to my body’s reaction, what I believe I was reacting to was the trees crying out for help. Sounds goofy, like new-agey tree-hugging BS. However, if it’s true that all living things have a voice, than it makes sense that these trees were sending off distress signals — very loud and powerful tree-frequency screams at having their limbs systematically chopped off, the sense of doom and inevitablity creating a sound that could not be heard by the human ear but by the place we all feel fear — the stomach.”
“Two days later, the deed was done. The trees and their offending roots were gone and so was the sick feeling. I had a lot going on in my head about the newly bleak, bare corner and the brutal end of life for those beauties, but my stomach was fine.”
Judi is one of those gardeners who has such a finely developed empathic sense that she cannot throw out even the barest, deadest twig of a plant. She feels the life within and will continue caring for it in every way she can, for weeks, months, even in some cases years. I’ve teased her about it for years, but the truth is that she’s been right and I wrong more times that I care to count, so it doesn’t surprise me at all that her body was reacting to the violent death of the gazillions of cells across the street.
She literally had to lock up the store and go home; it was more than she could bear. And please note, for the disbelieving, that this took place not because Judi has ever believed in the idea of sentient trees, nor even examined that idea. In fact, she refers to that sort of thing as “goofy, new-agey tree-hugging BS”. And yet her body knew the truth.
The Forest Primeval — the persistent, world-wide, cross-cultural idea that the world was once covered with a solid canopy of trees — trees who were ‘alive’ and actively communicated not only with each other, but also with at least some humans — is an archetype I ran across many years ago, and accepted as a version of truth. However, I thought that it was a far-from mainstream mythos that most people weren’t even aware of, and would probably disdain. Then I began doing some research for this post and was very surprised to find out how wrong I was! “One of our most popular, strongly held images is that of the ‘forest primeval’. We imagine a blanket of ancient forest, which nature maintained in equilibrium with the environment,” says James Kate, author of Planning a Wilderness.
It turns out that an amazing spectrum of people hold similar views, as demonstrated by Lisa Alpine at her site The Living Spirit of Old-Growth Forests, where she documents a series of interviews on the subject. I’ve excerpted a sampling of the interviews here, but it’s well worth spending some time on the site to read the much more in-depth interviews:
“It is important to realize that the forest is really more than the trees.” —Paul Hughes, Executive Director of Forests Forever.
Do you believe trees have a spirit or soul? I believe they have tremendous spiritual power. It is important to realize that the forest is really more than the trees. It is all so interconnected and interdependent. The trees are the most visible part, the most glorious part. Nowhere else but in a cathedral forest can you find such deep solitude and the silence.
Do you believe trees are living entities? Some redwoods are 2,500-years-old. Any time you have a living being who has aged and grown that much, you are talking about a reservoir of energy beyond human comprehension. How can you deny that when you walk through the forest and feel that magic and energy? There is much that science hasn’t taught us about these ancient forests. There is an extra dimension there we haven’t plumbed yet.
“When I walk in an old-growth forest the feeling is the closest to a real religious deep-seated meaning I’ve ever come across.” —Larry Eifert, world-renowned naturalist painter
Do you believe trees have spirits? Yeah, I do. I am not sure they are the same spirits we have… I think they must have great experience and the fact they all join their roots together suggests a community or family.
“You cannot have sanity without sane relationships with your environment.” —Leslie Gray, a clinical psychologist whose work in ecopsychology links modern psychotherapeutic practices with shamanism. She has taught at UC-Berkeley and the California Institute of Integral Studies. She is of Oneida and Seminole heritage.
What is your connection to trees? I always include the tall straight people in my prayers and am acutely aware of how much I have to learn from them. I have a reciprocal relationship with them. I leave offerings for them.
Do you think the older trees or ancient forests have more wisdom than the younger? Those trees are our elders.
Have you spent time in old-growth forests and what feeling do you get from them? A real sense of ancestors. One of my first teachers in shamanism taught me a way of journeying where you sit at the base of an old tree and stay there for 24 hours without food or water. You sit and allow yourself to receive. It is quite astonishing what happens. Trees start talking to you. Many shamans say the best way to apprentice yourself is to a tree.
“A forest without elders is a very empty forest. It is like a child without parents left there to fend for himself” —Tim Corcoran, Director of the Headwaters Outdoor School in Santa Cruz.
Do you believe that trees have souls? I believe that trees are living beings that have all the same types of experiences we have. They are feeling beings. They experience the world very differently because of the way they live.
I also notice that the older trees teach the younger ones. A forest without elders is a very empty forest. It is like a child without parents, left there to fend for himself. People who are in tune with trees will feel this difference.
Part II, examining what deforestation does to our souls, tomorrow…