THIS SUMMER, I built my children a tree house. Adults build tree houses because they always wanted one when they were young, or because they can remember their own childhood tree house fondly. The actual children are secondary concerns. I deliberately built my tree house large enough so that adults could sleep in it. When the kids grow up and get bored with it, my wife and I plan to claim it for ourselves. Maybe we’ll sit up there as the sun goes down and listen to the birds, or watch the foxes emerge from the hedge bank and go looking for the neighbor’s ducks again.
I built the tree house in a sycamore that grows in a hedgerow in our field. We don’t have many mature trees on our land, and this one attracted the kids as soon as we moved here, to the west of Ireland. It has a personality of its own: it leans out into the field as if it were bending over to inspect the ground. They used to call it the fairy tree and leave offerings in a little hole in the trunk. Sometimes they got replies.
I’d been promising them a tree house for a couple of years before I got round to building one. I wanted to get it right. When you’re building something for your children, you want to be pretty sure it’s not going to collapse on top of them or send them catapulting from the tree eight feet down to the ground. That kind of thing tends to decrease their confidence in your fatherly construction skills.
But there was something else I wanted to get right. A lot of tree-house designs I saw involved putting the thing right at the heart of the tree, and that in turn involved a lot of what is euphemistically known as “tree surgery,” which in everyday English means “hacking a lot of branches off the tree.” The shape of our sycamore meant that if the tree house were to sit in the tree itself, a lot of the big branches would have to come off. Something in me balked strongly at this. I like this tree: it has a wholeness about it. I don’t suppose it’s very old, and it’s not even a native species (as if that should matter—neither am I), but it’s definitely some kind of being. I didn’t want to hack it about for the sake of providing yet another space for humans.
So I ended up building a tree house on stilts, the back of which is attached to the trunk, which also acts as a ladder up into a small door. The tree house has windows and a clear roof, so you can see that you’re up in the branches, and the light filters through the leaves into the space. You can’t get in without climbing up the hedge bank and scaling the trunk, but the house is really attached to the tree rather than sitting in it. I only had to saw off one small branch. The kids love it, and I’m proud that it hasn’t fallen down. But I feel as though I’ve done a strange service to the tree as well, and that seems as important, somehow, as anything else.
Before I started writing this essay, I went up into the tree house and sat there above the frost-coated field. I enjoyed building it: building jobs are usually more stressful than peaceful, but this was an exception. I get a sense of peace up in a tree that I never quite feel anywhere else. I’m sure this must go back millions of years and run in my primate blood. Our primate ancestors spent much longer in the trees than our relatively young species has spent on the ground, and building a tree house has given new life to my preexisting dark suspicion that we should never have come down from the branches in the first place. We are primates built for trees, and the branches still welcome us. Maybe all of our ecological crimes are a result of some madness sparked by leaving the canopy. Maybe we can’t function properly down here. Or perhaps it’s just harder to cause trouble in a tree. There’s no fire up there, no sword. That’s where Eden was: up in the branches, with the birds and the bracket fungi. Once you come down, all your troubles begin.
IN 1949 the German philosopher Karl Jaspers coined a new word: Achsenzeit. Usually translated into English as “Axial Age,” it referred to the historical period between the eighth and third centuries BC. During this period, Jaspers said, five distinct civilizations, those of Greece, Palestine, Persia, India, and China, all experienced profound transformations, which between them created “the foundations upon which humanity still subsists today.” In each, a combination of social, economic, and technological changes, including the spread of ironworking, literacy, urbanization, and market economies, disrupted old social and religious orders. Philosophers and spiritual pioneers, including Buddha, Plato, Socrates, Zarathustra, Elijah, Jeremiah, Confucius, and Lao Tzu, developed new and groundbreaking ways of understanding man’s place in the world. Hierarchies began to crumble, certainties were questioned, and new ways of thinking and seeing began to develop from the ensuing confusion.
The greatest significance of the Axial Age, in Jaspers’s mind, was that these shifts led people toward different ways of seeing the world they lived in; they may even have changed human consciousness itself. The shift away from a communal, oral, rural culture to a more individualistic, literate, urban culture led thinkers and seekers in all five civilizations to begin to explore the nature of the self and question what it meant to be an individual human in the world.
The Axial Age, in other words, was a period of collapse from which emerged new ways of seeing and being. When I first came across Jaspers’s notion, a few years back, it sounded curiously familiar. Unstoppable technological change. Seemingly endless waves of warfare, with frightening new weapons. Accelerating urbanization and the disappearance of rural ways of being. New ways of communicating, speaking, and thinking. Old political and spiritual hierarchies no longer up to the job. A widespread sense of fear and uncertainty as the world changes almost faster than can be reported. It sounded like the world I was living in. It still does.
I wonder now if we may be living through a second Axial Age, this one birthed in Western Europe and North America. Consider the shifts the world has undergone since the Industrial Revolution, the Enlightenment, or even the European Reformation. A global economic machine, initially in the shape of the European empires and more recently in the guise of what we call globalization or development, has crashed its way into the economies and cultures of virtually every corner of the earth, extracting wealth and enfolding people into a worldwide commercial economy. Everywhere that this machine has landed, local political and economic systems have collapsed or shrunk to be replaced with variations on a single template: market economy, nation-state, centralized two-party democracy, mass media.
Corporate power has mushroomed and the language of business and the assumptions of the market have infiltrated previously unthinkable aspects of life, from the nursery to the kitchen. Science has turned religion on its head. The internet has revolutionized the manner and speed of communication and may even be altering our neurological wiring. Robotics and computing are gearing up to replace humans in many areas of life. Warfare has become ultratechnological and increasingly lopsided. And unprecedented waves of human migration are driving deep cultural and political shifts and schisms across the world.
This is the story of our times. It is not a comforting story. Rather, it is a tale of constant upheaval, a never-ending storm in which it can seem impossible to find a mooring. And in this second Axial Age we must also cope not only with these cultural transformations but with the consequences of our ongoing attack on the life-support systems of the earth itself. We are walking the surface of a living planet that is itself in a period of radical transition. We began that transition, by accident, as a side effect of creating our new world. Now we have to live with the consequences.
After ten thousand years of human civilization, the second Axial Age is bringing us up hard against questions that have finally become too big to look away from: Can we recognize that we are the snake in the garden? Can we own up to our abuses and begin to make restitution? Is that even possible? Can we change? This may be our last chance to face these questions and try to answer them. Climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, soil depletion, acidified oceans, melting ice: all the warning signs have long been flashing red. It is too late now to plan for the future or to issue warnings about it. The future is here. We are living in it.
When we contemplate these changes and these threats, we tend to revert to certain ways of speaking, which themselves stem from certain ways of seeing. We use the language of science and economics; the language of politics; the language of anger and righteousness, guilt and judgment. We talk about parts per million of carbon and we talk about our responsibilities to future generations. This kind of talk is easy; it is expected. But I have come to believe that it is largely useless, and not just because nobody is really listening. It is useless because it does not get anywhere near the heart of the matter.
As in the first Axial Age, so in the second: the real questions to be answered are not questions of politics, economics, or social morality. They are questions about what is missing from all of this talk and from the world that we have built. They are questions about what has meaning, what matters, what is greater than us, and how we should behave toward it. And those, whether we like it or not, are religious questions.
THE FIRST AXIAL AGE was, above all, a challenge to settled religious notions. In northern India, for example, around 500 BC, Siddhartha Gautama, who would later become a Buddha, or “awakened one,” began to question the nature of reality and the religious practices of the day, because nobody was giving him answers that satisfied him. The alternative that he developed involved a deep and unsparing examination of the nature of the human mind and the supposed separation of the individual self from the greater whole. The key to Gautama’s method was questioning: questioning the reality of the self, questioning the solidity of existence, questioning the nature of the mind, questioning what you were told by everybody else, including him.
In Greece, meanwhile, Socrates and his pupil Plato were employing their own method of questioning to similarly challenge the established authorities and beliefs of the time. Sorties were being launched by a range of teachers and masters—from Israeli prophets to Chinese sages—against spiritual notions that had served people for millennia but which were proving inadequate for a new time. Animal sacrifices and ancestor worship made no sense in this new world. The world of the spirit had to evolve with the world of economics and technology.
Then as now, old stories were failing and new ones were being conceived. What are our modern-day equivalents of animal sacrifice and ancestor worship? What are our faltering tales? We tell a story that the world is a machine that can be programmed to serve our purposes. We tell a story that humans are the measure of all things, that we can justify enclosing other creatures in factory farms or animal-testing labs, clearcutting the great forests and poisoning the seas, killing off other forms of life to feed our hunger and desire. We tell a story that we can mold the world to the needs of the self, rather than molding the self to the needs of the world.
These stories failed us long ago, and it is increasingly common now to hear the claim that we need “new stories” to replace them. These new stories, it is said, will be stories of belonging again. They will be stories of returning to the earth, of understanding our true place in the great maelstrom of the universe, not as gods now but as family members. Eco-theologian Thomas Berry made this case eloquently in his classic The Dream of the Earth: “Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value.” This, it seems to me, is both true and essential. But it is not a new story. Rather, it is a very old one, being haltingly rediscovered by a culture that long ago forgot how to listen to it. Every indigenous culture recognizes this as the oldest of old tales. Once we peel back our failing narratives, we see it waiting patiently underneath. What we don’t know is what to do with it. From the perspective of our modernity, enmeshed as we are in machines, in cities, in minds trapped by what we have built, we don’t know how we might even start to live it again.
One thing is clear to me: any deep change is not going to come from intellectuals like me writing books or articles about why we need new stories. If that were going to save the world, the world would be fine by now. Deep change is going to come, just as it did in the last Axial Age, through a radical alteration in people’s lived experience. And that is only going to come from a crisis that forces people up against the consequences of what we have done. It is going to come when economies start collapsing, when political systems crumble, when cities flood, when seas rise, when people are hungry or dying. New stories emerge from collapses that kill off the old ones. We can talk all we like, but until there is a world-changing shift, until our comforts really begin to slide away, we will have no incentive to change anything at all. And anyway, nobody will be listening.
Here in the West, we are deep into a centuries-long crisis of meaning. As we chase our goals, they drift farther away. If and when we reach them, they suck out our souls. Our material religion, like the transcendent religions it sprang from, aims for eternity. In the future, we will all be immortal millionaires. The goal of our religion is impossible to reach; and if it weren’t, we would find ourselves in hell.
At the core of our animal beings, something is bleeding. If we stop and pay attention, we can feel the wound. In the wound lies the hope.
NOT MANY PEOPLE around here feel the way that I do about trees. Only literary blow-ins like me, with our heads in the works of Thomas Berry and Annie Dillard, can afford to be romantic about them. Since we moved to Ireland, nearly three years ago now, my family has planted nearly one thousand trees, and we’re not halfway done yet. We’ve put in a coppice of birch around our fire pit, in an area that used to be a bramble forest. We’ve surrounded much of the house with native hedges and planted half an acre of willow, poplar, and alder, partly for fuel and partly for the birds. Still to come, in the back field where the tree house is, are a hazel coppice and hopefully another acre or so of native trees. In twenty years’ time, the tree house will be surrounded by a small forest.
“What are you going to do with those?” our neighbors ask sometimes. We live in a farming community, and farmers are practical people. If I tell them we have planted the trees to coppice for fuel, there’s a nod of understanding. I don’t tend to talk much about wanting to plant them just because I like them, or because the birds do. I’m not sure how I would explain it.
Cutting down trees, not planting them, is the way around here. On many an autumn or winter day, the buzz of chainsaws comes rolling in from the surrounding fields. Sometimes it’s hedges being neatened up, but often it’s the mass destruction of mature trees for no reason that I can understand. Great oaks or ashes that have been standing in hedge banks for decades or longer come crashing down to be piled up and burned in the center of the field. Old trackways lined with beautiful trees are hacked about with flails or sliced with chainsaws until they look like First World War battlefields. I’ve come to dread the thin buzz of the saw. I live in the most deforested country in Europe, and sometimes I think I hear the echo of a great loss. This was one reason I wanted to build that tree house without damaging the tree. The notion of preserving, protecting, or respecting even one tree has suddenly come to seem a thing of real importance.
There is nothing especially Irish about the battlefield treatment of trees, and nothing European either. This is just farming. Until I came here, it was never quite clear to me what the basis of agriculture, and therefore of our food and our civilization, was. When I lived in towns I saw the countryside as a green oasis of calm. It can be, but that is almost incidental. Much of the countryside is a green desert: a factory floor. So much in our civilization, from fire and food to buildings and furniture and paper, is a result of the mass destruction of the trees that stood here before humans came.
Here in Europe, most of our great forests were gone millennia ago. The fields and cities were built on their ruins, and those of us who grew up in those ruins never knew they were anything else first. In other parts of the world, though, I have seen the ruination in action. In Borneo I have walked through rainforests where great dipterocarp trees, their trunks as wide as my house, have recently been destroyed, again by chainsaws, over dozens of square miles, to make way for plantations of palm. In Chilean Patagonia I have driven for hours along dirt roads surrounded by slashed and burned forests soon to be replaced by estancias for the production of more beef for a growing global population.
This is what we do, we humans. We came down from the trees and now we destroy them. The older I get, the harder it is to take this; the harder it is even to look at it. I pass through the ghosts of forests with W. S. Merwin’s lines running through my head:
The possessors move everywhere under Death their star
Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows
Like thin flames with no light
They with no past
And fire their only future.
It is long overdue that we start the restitution. I think the poets can help us to do that, because the poets come closest to the eternal, to the lost meaning, and to the silence in which we can hear the lost meaning. We are all possessors. “You’ve depopulated the vast heavens,” rages Rilke at humanity, at himself. “Everything is afraid of you, / wretched destroyers of abundance!” We are all destroyers; but we can be redeemed, I think, if we want to be. We can be forgiven if we change.
“If I were called in / to construct a religion,” Philip Larkin wrote, “I should make use of water.” I would make use of trees. At the heart of the creation myth of the West, in the primeval garden, before the fall into fire and farming, stands a tree, on which grows a sacred fruit. We pluck and eat the fruit and we are cast from the peace at the heart of all things. The fruit will help us live forever, but first we must saw down the tree and burn it, and use the flames to forge weapons with which to battle the world itself.
What happens if the tree remains? What happens if the warnings from history, the new information provided by the sciences, and the song that sings deep inside us come together to make us, the people of the West, the children of modernity, look at trees as many of the ancients did? Would that begin to heal the wound? If we were to see not just the half of the tree that towers above the ground but the half that lives beneath it. If we were to see that great complex of roots connected to all of the other trees in the woodland by networks of mycelium that act almost as a neural network, connecting up communities of living beings, sending and receiving signals. If we were to see this network, this community, as alive, as in some way aware. If we were to understand that when we tug on one leaf it is connected to everything else in the world.
If we saw trees as living, connected, aware—would we change our ways in relation to them, and would that change us? Perhaps not. We know that mice and rats and cows and pigs are living, aware beings, but that doesn’t stop us torturing and slaughtering them if we find it useful. But in the long term, or maybe sooner, we will be faced with what we have done. That crisis will hit. “The Earth will not be ignored,” Thomas Berry wrote, “nor will it long endure being despised, neglected or mistreated.” We will change, or we will be changed. I suspect it will be the latter. But in the meantime, there is work we can do.
New stories—or old stories in new form—will not be purely individual endeavors. They will not arise from research, from thinking, from analysis, from planning. They will not be utopian, globalist, all-encompassing, neat and satisfying. If we are to develop different ways of relating ourselves to the earth or to some new spiritual methodology that connects us back again to our natural heritage, this isn’t going to come from our rational minds. It may not come from us at all. The mythologist Martin Shaw speaks of stories as being “an echo location from the Earth.” The old folktales and foundation myths, he says, were not purely the creations of human minds. Rather, those minds acted like aerials, telling a story that a place, or the spirit of a place, wanted to be told. Such new stories, again, are the oldest stories of all: they are a retelling of the eternal story, from before we felled the tree. And they are not the product of thinking. They are the product of listening.
“He who knows does not speak,” Lao Tzu wrote back in the first Axial Age. “He who speaks does not know.” It’s a useful warning to essayists everywhere. What if the stories we need, the new ways of seeing, are right here under our feet, waiting for us to notice them? What if they are dancing through the canopy in the sunlight? One of the most startling claims that Berry makes in The Dream of the Earth is that our human ability to question ourselves and question life, to measure and explore and think about the nature of everything, represents a necessary evolutionary leap. Human beings, he says, are the universe made self-aware. To care for the universe, then, is to care for ourselves. Respecting the earth is a form of self-respect.
As the second Axial Age accelerates, it is clear that our relationship with the rest of nature is the story by which our species will live or die. We are being tested, by the earth itself, as kings or heroes were tested in those old stories. We will live right by our inheritance—our inner wildness and that of the world—or we will die and the world will continue without us. I think we can make it, though it will take us centuries; but first we are going to have to walk through the fires we have set, and much of what we think we are, and much of what we have built, is going to have to burn away.
“Only a god,” Heidegger famously said, “can still save us.” An atheist would disagree, but I think that on this one, the atheist would be wrong. While we might not need a new religion, we do need a new sense of the sacred or an awakening of the most ancient one: a sense of awe, wonder, and respect for something greater than us. What could that something greater be? There is no need to theorize about it. What is greater than us is the earth itself—life—and we are folded into it, a small part of it, and we have work to do. We need a new animism, a new pantheism, a new way of telling the oldest of stories. We could do worse than to return to the notion of the planet as the mother that birthed us. Those old stories have plenty to say about the fate of people who don’t respect their mothers.
But while we like to talk about “the earth,” I’m not sure any of us can really relate to it. None of us has ever seen it, not as a whole. A planet is too big for our small minds; it seems more like a concept than a reality. What we can relate to is what we see and walk among. Any new religion, any new way of seeing, will probably grow from the ground where we are. It will emerge from something small that demands our attention; something we love; something animate with the spirit of life.
For me, it will be trees. Maybe I need to spend more time sitting in trees, just listening. Listening does not come naturally to me: I’m a talker, a thinker. I like ideas, concepts. I like winning arguments. Which is all the more reason to practice. The winter sun has come now and burned away the frost. Perhaps I should sit up in the tree again for a while and pay attention. I wish I had a few lifetimes to get better at paying attention, at listening. I wish I had more time to learn the song. But maybe the time we have is all the time we need.
It is not only the Abrahamic religions that place a great tree at the center of all things. At the heart of Norse mythology, too, stands a tree: the Yggdrasil. Perhaps it is the same tree that stood in the Garden of Eden. The Yggdrasil connects the nine worlds of Viking cosmology. Its roots stretch down into hell, its branches into heaven, and its trunk stands at the center of the world of men. When the Yggdrasil fell, the Vikings said, the world would end in a great war. Without the tree at the heart of things, there would be only fire and grief.
These old stories, seeking us out, singing us the song of the tree, offer us a path and a warning. I think we can still hear them, if we climb up into the branches, shut our mouths, and listen.
This article was made possible through the support of the Kalliopeia Foundation. Listen to an interview with Paul Kingsnorth here.
I agree Paul, the world tree or axis mundi has a big branch on which we can experience eutierria and think. I also share your idea of a secular spirituality based on the model of interconnectedness shown to us by how trees live with each other and the rest of life. I have attempted to take this idea further with a concept I call, the ‘Ghedeist’. It might get to the heart of things: https://glennaalbrecht.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/love-and-spirit-the-ghedeist-in-the-symbiocene/
Wonderful article, thank you. I’ll reread it a few times and write a poem to celebrate.
This sentence: “Sometimes it’s hedges being neatened up, but often it’s the mass destruction of mature trees for no reason that I can understand.” Do you mean ‘can’t’?
Perceptive. I think you are listening, Paul Kingsnorth.
Wonderful article! Thought provoking
great article, thank you
‘No reason I can understand’, meaning, there is no understandable reason to destroy our mother earth.
This makes me feel the dryness of the world we have fashioned, and I long for the silence and soul nourishment that the trees, which form a true vertical between our roots and the stars, provides for us.
Thank you, Paul! I read this without realizing it was you until the bottom. I have been a fan ever since I read the Wake.
The trees speak to me without words and it is hard to put what they say to me in words. Even when trees appear to be killed, there is a part of them that is still living, whether underground or in another tree somewhere before or after. I see this in the 2nd growth redwood forest where I walk. What once appeared to be clear cut is back a century later, changed, and amidst evidence of the prior destruction, but very much alive, if people let it be. And we are not separate from the trees. Our DNA goes back through the generations like the trees DNA does, and there is some little part of inheritance that we share, for we are all from the same source, this earth.
“One thing is clear to me: any deep change is not going to come from intellectuals like me writing books or articles about why we need new stories. If that were going to save the world, the world would be fine by now. Deep change is going to come, just as it did in the last Axial Age, through a radical alteration in people’s lived experience. And that is only going to come from a crisis that forces people up against the consequences of what we have done. It is going to come when economies start collapsing, when political systems crumble, when cities flood, when seas rise, when people are hungry or dying. New stories emerge from collapses that kill off the old ones. We can talk all we like, but until there is a world-changing shift, until our comforts really begin to slide away, we will have no incentive to change anything at all. And anyway, nobody will be listening.”
Apologies for quoting such a long section, but you have finally crystallized for me why I have not only given up all hope and any motivation for some kind of ecological salvation for the human species (okay, well maybe not all, but petty close to it) but am indeed waiting for and anticipating the final collapse or event that pushes us over the edge, so that finally change will come and this never ending drawn out end of the world will finally arise and we can get on with it, or not, as the case may be. There are too many deniers and foot draggers, too many who have a stake in the cure status quo, for change of any substance to happen before we are forced into it. Bring it on already, has become my (not so) new mantra. Thank you for voicing this for me.
Cataclysmic change is always more dramatic and makes a good story for writers to write about, and although there may be specific incidents of sudden change, we are really experiencing a gradual evolution over several centuries that began a long time ago. I don’t think change happens in a linear fashion, “if A, then B.” There ARE millions of people already motivated to change themselves, and although some of it may come from fear, most of it comes from attraction to higher, more complex levels of functioning. The questions we are asking now are spiritual questions (the author calls them “religious”), and they are mostly about belonging, as he says, belonging to the Earth, and learning to listen to metaphysical messages that are beyond rational. It may very well be that our attraction to this new way of being is the CAUSE, not the result, of the structural collapse as we withdraw our energy and attention from obsolete thought forms.
I keep asking myself (given the nature of humans to question everything) why Nature evolved us? We, who are attempting to make the entire Universe one giant, seemingly unlimited, resource for our personal use? But instead, are on the verge of destroying our very home?
It may be in the idea embedded in this quote from the essay:” One of the most startling claims that Berry makes in The Dream of the Earth is that our human ability to question ourselves and question life, to measure and explore and think about the nature of everything, represents a necessary evolutionary leap. Human beings, he says, are the universe made self-aware. To care for the universe, then, is to care for ourselves. Respecting the earth is a form of self-respect.”
Hopefully, this deep self-awareness will lead us to the deep connection we share with all things.
Thank you for this essay. And for saving your Sycamore in all it’s glory.
In my book, Heaven is a Garden, I include a chapter called The Messages of the Trees. It celebrates the trees and their unique energies. I had first written Ortho’s All About Trees which described them but this chapter extols their unseen energies and how they are our sentinels.
Did you know the birdsong makes the trees grow? the vibrations of the high frequency sound opens up the stomata on the underside of the leaves. true.
Thank you for this mesmerizing and terrifyingly beautiful essay…I will not attempt to add another image nor assert an alternate argument, for you have stirred a drowsing daemon spirit crying to be released from the prison of rationality…I want to go out and nurse my own wilderness back to life.
We cannot know how to live a new intra connected way. This knowledge of connection that you refer to has been lost to us. We cannot unknow all that we have learned in our time – this is our lived experience. Spiritual connection reads as myth and legend to our eyes. How do we start a new life? What do we listen to? What will our listening tell us? To sit in trees again?
Thank you, Paul, for this beautiful work. I think one of the greatest challenges for many of us who are witnessing the destructiveness of our time is to recognize that we likely can’t avoid the social-economic-ecological collapse while we hold on to the awe and joyfulness we find in the natural world. You continue to provide guidance in recognizing and accepting that challenge, and I’m appreciative for that.
Sometimes it’s better to just go climb a tree, dig some clams, handle a few stones, walk around with no particular goal in mind. It annoys many people that I choose to live that way, but that’s not a concern. I might see a bear, after all, out there in the real world. We can smell each other a while, keeping distance, then walk away thinking about how green the other’s grass must be. I don’t know. It’s a long way back from the Dark Mountain, Paul, but I keep walking. It’s up hill both ways at times, this living in the head and on the page. But you’re on to something, as usual, planting a grove you can’t really explain. Thanks for that.
Hi Paul – I found your article via the Treesisters Facebook page. I see signs everywhere that the trees are calling us into new ways of being and remembering. I read your essay as speaking to the power of the trees, myths and listening. One thing I would question is…”One thing is clear to me: any deep change is not going to come from intellectuals like me writing books or articles about why we need new stories.” Mmm, I will sit with this and I am not so sure…I see many books and writings now that are creating shifts from underneath the status quo – working their magic on the woodland floor. You may enjoy Sharon Blackie’s work – centred in your place in the world, magical Ireland. Thank you for this and for planting a forest!
Rich and beautiful article. Thank you.
And thank you for the 1000 trees your family planted.
Thank you Paul!
This was a gratifying read.
I have a deep connection with trees as well. I live among the treetops and that has opened my perspectives.
For me, I start with the Sun.
The Sun used to be my King, but I have finally relented, and now it is my God.
This strikes many of the Thumb People, here in the hills above Silicon Valley, as somewhat odd.
In a very real sense, trees are the answer.
It is scientifically primitive to somehow assert humans are “superior” to trees. If the quantity of genes is any indicia of sophistication, quite a few trees have double the amount of genes as Homo Economicus, known to the Yanamamo as the “human termites”.
But beyond genetics, the case for the superiority of trees cannot be ignored. Few humans have mastered the art of living beyond one hundred years. When compared to redwoods or bristlecone pines which can routinely live to be thousands of years, a lifespan of ninety is not impressive.
I further note most shoppers become quite uncomfortable if they go seventeen days without food. When that happens, the taking of selfies tends to becomes less important for them than tracking down the next meal.
Not so for trees. Perhaps if humans were more advanced, they would be able to make their own food from sunlight and water, an art mastered by saplings, but beyond the grasp of the groping human race.
I am not impressed.
Not only are rees able to produce their own food, they are able to do so without having to drive a Tesla to the supermarket. What could be more convenient than not having to travel four miles twice a week to stock up on food or run to the pantry for an apple? Why all this need for movement, simply to feed?
Trees need not jaunt about to grab a morsel. In this essential regard, they have mastered the art of feeding oneself without all this restless mobility.
The wise person may study the cinnamon tree.
Although the cinnamon tree can be quite large, its branches are twisted and crooked, unsuitable for timber. Its leaves are bitter, and Chuang Tzu notes, its smell will make a man go frantic for three days.
The cinnamon tree is useless and is therefore not cut down.
People know the advantage of being useful.
Few understand the value of being useless.
Which poem by Rilke is the quote from? Anyone?
A very clever and insightfull essay. Think about water too.
I am with you in your thoughts. Thought tries to preserve itself, perhaps thats why listening is superior and will help us to be vulnerable and open to change.
Dear Master Paul Kingsnorth,
Not only did I cherish the companion photographs in this fine piece of thought provoking prose, I am heartened with your departure from the normal angles of attack. I have to wonder, if we could refine our outreach efforts, and re-scope the angle of the vocabulary we use to value our ecosystems, could we truly see toward the heartwood of the meaning surrounding our relationship to the land, and understand all the better, the precious sentience of being through illustrating our most necessary of symbiotic inter-relationships.
I am reminded of “The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World” by David Abram, and have to wonder if you have stumbled upon it’s graces in discovering the roots of language, of perception even.
Please keep up your fine work!
Thank you for this article. I enjoyed it and it resonated deeply. I was privileged to participate in a dissection course 2 months ago. The teacher, Gil Hedley, compared the body to an onion-tree. What astounded me was the Images of trees throughout our body. If you cut the heart open, in the chamber of the heart the veins are imprinted into the shape of trees. When I dissected a lung, out of it emerged a beautiful tree. Cut the cerebellum in 1/2 and there is an imprint of a plant, like a fern. Root through a muscle and little trees, emerge. Rivers and trees I thought as I explored the body, taking it apart, layer by layer.
Thankyou. When I was in my 20s, I had a ‘mystical experience’ with trees and have felt their pain ever since. Hard to explain to most people, but I am certain that you (and your readers) understand. Your essay is brilliant and thought-provoking, much appreciated.
Thank you for the essay and to all the commentators each adding something. Reading this on a quiet sunny morning, appreciating the hopes and sadnesses expressed. Words to return to and dwell on at leisure.
“As in the first Axial Age, so in the second: the real questions to be answered are not questions of politics, economics, or social morality. They are questions about what is missing from all of this talk and from the world that we have built. They are questions about what has meaning, what matters, what is greater than us, and how we should behave toward it. And those, whether we like it or not, are religious questions.”
Some say we are going to “hell in a hand basket”, but I’d rather like to think we are at a precipice, turning a corner of new thinking, unfolding, evolving. Thank you for your insights!
Wonderful piece, but I was a bit disheartened to find what seemed like traces of an old social narrative that is better left behind as we seek new stories, or “old stories in new form.” “We live in a farming community, and farmers are practical people. … I don’t tend to talk much about wanting to plant [trees] just because I like them, or because the birds do. I’m not sure how I would explain it.” Is this meant to imply farmers in this community are not able to appreciate trees beyond their economic value? Hard to believe. This struck me as remarkably trite, especially against so much inspiration and insight. I am reminded of a passage from one of the literary seeds of organic farming, Look to the Land (Northbourne, 1940) – “Where is the utter nobleness of mind today? Hard to find, even in the country, where urban commercial standards increasingly prevail. By such standards the countryman is traditionally an object of derision, for his seeming slowness and his simplicity. His real merits pass unperceived …”. And one need only read Gene Logsdon’s, Groves of Trees to Live In, to find practicality and artistry are not mutually exclusive. When I came to, “for no reason that I can understand,” I couldn’t help but wonder if this was due to an incoherent answer to a personal inquiry, or because of failed deduction? If the former, I would have preferred reading of their explanation – even though I probably would not understand either. If the later, it is yet another way I’m reminded that listening is indeed vital – particularly when I don’t understand.
I enjoyed reading this article. I was just talking to my husband about how yoga, meditation, and such practices arose at a time when civilization was on the rise and the old ways…oral traditions and animism…had been separated from. I now have a frame of reference for this period of time => the Axial Age.
As well, your article reminded me of a poem I wrote called Speaking Mountains. I’ll share it here:
“Every part of creation is indebted for its life to the other parts of creation that have died and decayed so that it might live.”
–~ Jessica Prentice
these old mountains,
they tell stories
in languages i don’t speak
and yet i still
press my ear
to the ground
as if eves-dropping
while just trusting
that one day
between soil bacteria, fungus,
roots of trees
an occasional bee
and bird’s wings
will make sense to me.
i have no papers to write
no words to memorize or recite
just the slow process
remembering tulip poplar bloom
american ginseng berry
hairy poison ivy vine
rambling black bear
the screech owl’s tickled sigh well after the sun goes down
the choir of insects
that pulse through the night until
well after dawn.
these mountains ask me
to imprint the smell of forest
on my skin.
they ask me to notice how sure i feel
standing near an old-growth tree.
they ask me to be in awe of how the star-filled sky
can just swallow me whole.
they ask me to crawl inside the coyote call
and let it vibrate my bones.
the mountains teach me
that to drink from a stream,
to walk tall in the forest,
to understand the seasons,
to one day fold myself
into the top layer of soil,
our ancestors speak through
all this life,
all this death…
pressing my ear to the ground
listening for the mountain to speak
in its own soil sighs
and deep-rooted meanings
and stone sounds…
patiently, it waits for me to come around
to where i can participate
in the conversation.
Pisgah Forest — September 23, 2010
Being the grandson of someone who emigrated from Ireland to the US in the late nineteenth century I read with great interest Paul Kingsworth’s essay on the Irish countryside. Having visited the country for many years my wife and I decided to move to Ireland two years ago drawn by the country’s beguiling beauty. The author’s assessment that Ireland is “the most deforested country in Europe” resonates with my experience. Asking an Irish farming cousin about land use he stated “every square inch of land here is spoken for.” Land ownership is quite important but there are historical reasons for this.
As with the rest of the world Ireland saw a loss of forests with the advent of farming. However it wasn’t until the 15th century when lands were taken from the Irish and plantations allocated to English, Welsh and Scottish landlords did the real onslaught of woodlands begin. These landlords cleared vast tracts of forests to create agricultural land for export to UK and foreign markets. ‘Excess population,’ too, were shipped off to Barbados and other foreign colonies as indentured servants to work out their lives stripping those lands of their resources. The 19th century saw repeated famines and mass migrations of those yet strong enough to leave, including my grandfather. The Land Act of 1881 resulted in further clearance of forests as the landlords, about to lose their estates decided to cash in their timber crops. By 1903 it is estimated that just 1.5% of the total area under forests in Ireland existed. The carnage did end with Irish independence and today a total forest cover of about 10.5% of the national area exists. This figure is still low compared to other EU countries but the scarring from centuries of pillage will take time – yet it is underway.
I do think the country suffers from a form of PTSD regarding its land. So long denied a role in the management of its own country, finding that new balance of conservation is an ongoing struggle. However, there are many signs of optimism and real progress as Ireland affirms commitment to the social, political, and environmental goals of its EU neighbors and does not turn its back on the world. As with Norse mythology, Celtic and pre-Celtic mythology is also steeped in the sacredness of trees. That connection had literally been uprooted by foreign occupation but hopefully can now move toward the vision of that song by Malvina Reynolds:
God bless the grass that grows through cement.
It’s green and it’s tender and it’s easily bent.
But after a while it lifts up its head,
For the grass is living and the stone is dead,
And God bless the grass.
Thank you for this beautiful, insightful essay. Your writings on the environment touches on many questions that I, and I’m sure many others, have a hard time answering. It is relieving and inspiring to see that someone such as yourself has contemplated these issues in depth and offered your personal nuanced approach.
I am grateful for the work that you do. I believe it will be looked back upon as important writings during this watershed period of our civilizational upheaval.
My wife and I read aloud Richard Powers 2018 novel The Overstory, feeling our lives transformed by his story of a handful of people learning to hear the language of trees. Some sit in the tops of threatened redwoods until the State’s helicopters yank them out. One discovers how trees communicate and starts a seedbank for a distant future. Now I find Paul Kingsnorth’s essays (this one and Dark Ecology) and am moved by his vision. Powers must have included these pieces in the deep research that fed his writing of The Overstory.
Thank you so much for this beautiful, loving, and thoughtful essay. It connected some thoughts I’ve had and helped me consider them at deeper levels. More importantly, it touched my heart and spirit.
If we are here to awaken, have we not created a unique story that will help us? Most of us choose to play out our stories to the bitter end. Not waking up until we die. It’s nearly impossible to turn our lives (stories) over to a concept of God. Even after experiencing infinite consciousness, the source of all that is, life is enthralling. There are molecules that can offer a glimpse of our true nature.
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