“All things, animate and inanimate, have within them a spirit dimension. They communicate in that dimension to those who can listen.” ~ Jerome Bernstein, Jungian analyst
Right out in front of my house here on Whidbey Island stands a Western Redcedar tree that is nearly 300 years old. It’s exactly 4 feet three inches in diameter five feet up from the base (I’ve actually measured it), and it stands about 130 feet high (I used this old Boy Scout method to measure the height). Even though this Redcedar is an evergreen tree, every year at this time, it drops thousands of tiny golden needles on the ground. They make a soft snowfall-like carpet all around the base. I call my cedar tree Watty (after the character, Watty White on the Nashville TV drama, mostly because I like the way the name sounds). Watty and I have regular sessions together when I go to him for counsel. He’s astonishingly wise, which I’d expect any of us to be after 300 years of living. His wisdom is also confirmed by this recent New Yorker piece by Michael Pollan: The Intelligent Plant.
In the Micro, the Macro
I don’t think that it’s an accident that many of the neurons in my brain look pretty much like Watty at the molecular level. And in fact it was with deliberate intent that the neuroscientists who first spied the tree-like nature of brain cells assigned the Greek word “dendrite” to the branches in the receiving ends of those cells (I also don’t think that it’s an accident that deforestation on the planet and many of the problems that have resulted from it seem to be on the rise. But that’s a topic for another column).
Felt Arboreal Sense
The primary way that I receive counsel from Watty is not through words, but rather through imagery and sensation rooted in ritual. Which makes sense, since trees don’t tend to be very good with words as a general rule. Frequently the counsel I receive from Watty, because imagery and sensation are channeled through much of the same neural real estate where early trauma has been stored, evokes painful recollections. Images like being four years old, standing on the curb when my father drives up in his black Packard car. Feeling uncertainty and apprehension in the moment until he rolls down the window and hands me out a mongrel puppy. I am surprised and distracted and oblivious to the fact that I won’t see my father again for 20 years (the puppy too, runs away, but only after I’ve grown greatly attached to him )
This turns out to be my prime core, energetic or neurologically disorganizing wound. Guided by the imagery that surfaces in Watty’s presence I can see how virtually every relationship, from the two guys I went into successive businesses with, to the women I’ve dated and then married, to the fast friendships I’ve formed which then seemingly inexplicably spontaneously aborted (the compulsion to repeat the abandonment trauma in concerted attempts to try and heal it; abandonment is a difficult wound to heal directly through the process of recreation, since the abandoner must ultimately abandon, otherwise the wound never gets recreated).
My ecopsychologist colleague Michael Hutton, writing about “Listening to the Land” in my anthology, The Wisdom of Listening, notes the power that trees can take on:
To listen (to the trees) we need to give them our full attention. The ways they speak to us are subtle. We can listen with our ears, but in another way, we must listen with our hearts as well; we must listen with our whole bodies. When we listen this way, we are immediately rewarded. . . .Interestingly, there are indigenous people who claim they can hear the voice of the tree spirits. So, if these people can hear the trees, why can’t the rest of us?
So, trees can evoke feelings and imagery from the depths of our psyche, probably not because our neurons so resemble them, but more likely because our brains and bodies, by default and design, are on an integrative healing trajectory; and they will place virtually any person, place or thing into service that they might use for that purpose. It’s up to us to sustain that awareness and to hold to that possibility, especially when we find ourselves once again standing before what feels like … the gates of the Forest Primeval.
Free Your Tree Power
Coincidently, I have a friend and colleague whose current work actually inspired this column. Her name is Dr. Dorit Netzer and her work is in Imaginal Resonance. Some of you might feel inspired to participate in her easy online research. If so, you can contact her at this website:
I can pretty much guarantee that you and your neural branches will be well-rewarded.