Thursday, June 05, 2008

Trees and the Nature of Work

"A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has his mind precisely against what is wrong with us. . . . What I am saying is that if we apply our minds directly and competently to the needs of the earth, then we will have begun to make fundamental and necessary changes in our minds. We will begin to understand and to mistrust and to change our wasteful economy, which markets not just the produce of the earth, but also the earth's ability to produce." - Wendell Berry

I was recalling last night a story narrated by a good friend of both Tolkien and the Lewis Brothers, who would often accompany these three on walks across the English countryside. The Lewis Brothers would set the pace with an eye more toward exercise while Tolkien would wander rather behind looking at all the flora and fauna they passed. The friend, whose name escapes me, would serve as an insight, holding the two paces together by encouraging Tolkien to catch up and the Lewis Brothers to slow down. Once when he was heading back to accompany Tolkien he heard a chainsaw start up in the distance and Tolkien mutter under his breath, "Orcs!" At the time the friend had no idea what that term meant, as this was well before the Trilogy or the Hobbit graced this earth.

Given that context, it may not surprise you that as I walked to work today I was struck by an avenue of trees some 150-200 feet high, verdant with spring life, dripping rain down on me as I walked underneath their canopy and dark boughs. It wasn't quite the experience on ents that I have had, but they encompassed the silence and ancientness of many of the scenes in Fangorn and Lothlorien. I've been blessed with the opportunity on many occasions of hiking in old-growth forests in the Cascades: clambering over windfall cedars some ten feet in diameter, trail-running the soft beds of leaves and needles devoid of underbrush past living towers three hundred feet tall, and counting the brief years of humankind back several centuries in growth rings. There is something beyond the ken of us humans in these trees.

Wells of memory, life-forms radically different from yet intrinsically necessary to our own.

Schumacher in his wonderful little essay, Buddhist Economics mentions that,

The teaching of the Buddha, on the other hand, enjoins a reverent
and non-violent attitude not only to all sentient beings but also, with
great emphasis, to trees. Every follower of the Buddha ought to plant a
tree every few years and look after it until it is safely established, and
the Buddhist economist can demonstrate without difficulty that the
universal observation of this rule would result in a high rate of genuine
economic development independent of any foreign aid. Much of the
economic decay of southeast Asia (as of many other parts of the world)
is undoubtedly due to a heedless and shameful neglect of trees.

I tend to agree with this... Fr. Josef had me keep a garden as a teenager because he said it was good for a young adult to be close to the earth, to remember where he came from and where he was going. We're too hasty nowadays and many wise ones bemoan the fact.

As Treebeard says,
I can see and hear (and smell and feel) a great deal from this, from this, from this a-lalla-lalla-rumba-kamanda-lind-or-burume. Excuse me: that is a part of my name for it; I do not know what the word is in the outside languages: you know, the thing we are on, where I stand and look out on fine mornings, and think about the Sun, and the grass beyond the wood, and the horses, and the clouds, and the unfolding of the world. ... Hill. Yes, that was it. But it is a hasty word for a thing that has stood here ever since this part of the world was shaped.

Lonergan says that being hasty and not considering all the further pertinent questions is what has caused every civilization from the beginning of the world to eventually collapse.

We need to keep something of the memory that calls to us from trees. Tolkien notes this so well in his description of Treebeard's eyes,

"One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don't know but it felt as if something that grew in the ground — asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years." - Two Towers, Treebeard

So, go out and plant a tree, clamber around in one, ponder one, and revel in their memory and life.

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