“Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out … that wildness is a necessity … (that) going to the woods is going home
— John Muir, naturalist, writer
On long ago summer evenings when the kids were small, I would take them and their friends to the front campus of The W to play freeze tag.
What is now the College Street entrance to the campus was then a lush expanse of green grass.
The vast lawn and mature shrubs made for a perfect playing field where we would run and hide and run some more.
When we had played out, when everyone was hot and sweaty and out of breath, we would make for Third Avenue and home.
Occasionally we would stop to pay our respects to the large magnolia grandiflora at the northwest corner of the campus at College and 11th streets. And, to our minds, it was grand.
The lot of us would shimmy up through her broad, stout limbs and in doing so become invisible to all passers-by — no, to all of humankind.
Years later I’d heard the tree, with the obscurity it afforded, became a favorite hangout for MSMS students, even after MUW groundskeepers removed her lower branches.
As a kid, even now as an aging adult, there is something nurturing and fundamental about being in a tree.
When my parents built their first house on Chickasaw Drive, grandma Eunice, with characteristic prescience, planted a double row of fast-growing pine seedlings along the road to act as a screen.
I doubt — though maybe not — Eunice could have anticipated that the limbs of the pines would become one of our favorite play spaces and a refuge for us from the neighborhood bully, who was afraid of heights.
Some among us, namely Andy Brislin, could move through these rows of loblolly pines as though he were on terra firma.
We grow up and forget these things. We lose interest in climbing trees. Gone is our intimate relationship, our endless fascination, with the natural world.
We focus our gaze and energies on the demands of civilization and we forget.
Richard Powers in the startlingly original and eminently readable “The Overstory” examines this issue in the stories of nine lives, all intimately connected with trees. Literally, the trees are characters in the book. “The Overstory” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019.
The term for Powers’ trees is — and I am not going to pretend I know this word — is anthropomorphic, which is to say having human qualities.
Powers believes — as science has shown — that trees are a community unto themselves, that they communicate and nurture each other. He also posits we are of the same community and in our mad rush to control nature have lost our connection with it.
“We have to escape the life of commodity and replace it with the life of community,” he said in an interview with “Emergence” magazine. “We have to give up this notion that human destiny is to manage and control and to dominate, and replace it with the idea that human destiny depends … on making ourselves better at adapting to the environment, because the environment is 99 percent living things.”
That is to say there are other and no less vital passengers on Spaceship Earth with us homo sapiens. The sooner we realize and embrace this reality, the healthier we and our planet will be.
In the meantime, as a start, here’s a suggestion: Walk outside and find a tree in your yard, on your street or in a nearby woods. Learn what you can about this organism, its genus and species, its distinguishing qualities.
Make it your friend, for it is your friend whether you realize it or not.
Trees provide shade and thus cooling, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, reduce noise pollution, provide habitat to wildlife and increase property values.
And, if that is not enough, they are uniquely beautiful.
Depending on its size and species, there is a good chance — just like those pine trees on Chickasaw Drive planted by Grandma Eunice — it was here when you arrived on the planet and, left to its own devices, a good chance it will be here long after you’re gone.