One day I looked out my window to see a woman with her arms around the old maple tree in front of my house. When I stepped out my door, she explained she has just had breast cancer surgery and, “It feels like healing here.”
Research has shown that those who look out on a tree from their hospital window heal faster than those with no such view. Perhaps this woman sensed that if looking at a tree is healing, touching it might be more healing still. Each day for several days she came to hug this tree while her husband stood by.
A few days after she ceased coming, there was another woman with her arms around this tree. “I just had shoulder surgery”, she told me, “And this tree is just the right height to stretch my arm”. She also came with a male partner who stood by. Then they, like the other couple, turned and walked back to wherever they had come from.
I wouldn’t have picked these couples out of an ordinary crowd at say, a movie theater. I certainly wouldn’t have looked at the women and declared, “These are the women who will stop on a city sidewalk to hug a tree”. In their similarity with any of us, their actions sign a recognition that lies in each of us as well — no matter how deeply it may be buried in the trappings of modern life. That is a recognition that we belong to the natural web of life—and some generously rooted thing in that web might have the power to heal our wounds.
As a street tree, the roots of this particular tree are confined by a cement sidewalk on one side and the street on the other. In such a position in the world, it does more than thrive– it flourishes. So do its green companions. In its leaf mold, naturalized flowers bloom in a riot of color every spring and I watch strollers stop to enjoy them. Later in the year, children from a nearby day care linger in the shade under this tree on their walk to a local park. Passing workers park under the tree to enjoy their lunch.
Under the canopy of this tree, walkers sometimes stop to ask me about what grows in my yard. It is thus children learn to pluck the grape kiwis that hang on my front trellis or chew fennel seeds in the herb garden by the street. When I see a father stop to test the kiwis for ripeness as his son watches, something essential pass between father and son with the tree as a guardian angel in this process.
Providing succor is something trees have done for us for as many generations as we have been human. This tree continues this great tradition among trees as it creates community between neighbors and strangers on my city street. It unites us in a common language, showing us that a shared world is a richer one.
But to understand this language, we must let ourselves be vulnerable to the larger than human world—give in to our impulse to lean on a tree. We must abandon our human separateness—our human smallness for something larger.
Above all, we must drop the notions that set us apart from the natural world—ideas like “survival of the fittest.” The ancient peoples of the Pacific Northwest where I now live saw things differently. “The eyes of the world are looking at you,” Chehalis elder Henry Cultee told me. His elders taught him that it was these multiple eyes of natural life that determine our longevity, as persons and as a people.
What his people anciently knew, modern ecologists are just now learning. In any ecological niche, including the one in a contemporary city, interdependence not only enhances the quality of our lives—it ensures our survival. If we really want to use the word, “survival of the fittest”, we must understand “fittest” in true survival terms—in terms of how we “fit” within natural systems.
Perhaps we might even learn to shelter other humans who share this earth with us as does the tree in front of my house.
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