Years ago, I visited the Menominee reservation and met Earl, whose family for generations had been in charge of tending to a river where a dark serpent lived. The old stories said that when the serpent was calm, then there would be peace in the world. It was the job of Earl’s family lineage to do the practices that kept that serpent placid. I don’t know precisely what those practices were, but I do know that Earl lived alone in a remote place, in the shadow of the bluffs beside which this river flowed.
The trees were tall there, the silence broken only by the sound of water running over rocks, the rustle of leaves or the trill of a bird. Earl’s children had grown and moved away. They didn’t want to carry on this tradition, he told me, and so when he died, there would be no one to tend the serpent.
Looking around that silent place, trees still and tall, I asked Earl if he ever got lonely. He shook his head and said:
“If you sit still long enough and listen, the trees will talk to you.”
As he said this, the trees seemed to lean in, as if listening to a friend. There was a palpable sense of companionship between Earl and the trees that permeated the landscape — a deep comfort and familiarity in the way he inhabited the folding chair on which he sat, alone, beside the river, among the trees, deeply intimate with his surroundings.
And now, as I consider the question of how people can talk to trees, I see that it starts with a stillness born of intimacy — a place of profound receptivity. This is the attitude of deep listening, from where we can hear the language of trees. Then we can speak to them in their language — not our own. This communion born of Earl’s deep listening was the prayer that calmed the serpent — maybe the deepest prayer there could be: to sit on the edge of impending disaster, on the edge of the demonic, and listen. This is what brings peace to the world.
Trees are only the beginning. We can listen like this to anything, learn the language of birds and church basements, metal and corn, friends and enemies, babies and flies. We can be truly multi-lingual, if only we listen. As children, listening in this way is how we naturally learn language. When I visited a language school in India, the man who taught Hindi there told me with great passion how important it was to immerse myself in the sounds of Hindi — to listen to the pure notes of the language as music. Tune the ear to the music, and the meaning will come naturally.
We are instruments and we vibrate with the other, resonate with the sounds that we absorb. We tune ourselves to each other until we quiver as one string. That’s when we can understand the unfamiliar language that lives in another being, another body, another life — and to understand is to love. I bought an Ektara — a North Indian instrument that has only one string to play. There is another string that you tune to the first, and it plays itself, resonating along with the string that you pluck. The two strings vibrate as one, and Earl’s loneliness vanishes in the language of trees.
Maybe this is our deepest longing — for this union with life, when if only for a moment, we are one sound, one vibration. I sensed this truth the day I spoke with Earl. I sensed the profundity and power of what he had learned, living beside the river, beside the serpent, amongst the trees. But the timing was wrong to absorb that truth and live from it completely. Other things had to happen first. The restrictions on my life, on my consciousness, are as important as its freedoms. They shape me — they shape all of us. Earl was handed this task from his father and grandfathers. The tribe had assigned him this role before he was born. It was this restriction that gave Earl the shape of his life, of his consciousness, and the opportunity to find this wisdom and peace.
Even as I write this, I think: the timing may be wrong for others to understand what I am saying here — for them to understand how to talk to trees and why we would want to. Other things may have to happen first. It’s a big leap, for a modern person who thinks they know what is “important.” Too few of us can honor Earl and his life, alone by the river with only the occasional rafting party stopping by to rent oars and a raft from his makeshift stand, which is how he earns the cash for a few groceries. “What a waste of a life,” I can hear the utilitarians saying.
But I want to bow deep, and thank life itself for Earl — that I met him and that he said this, from the quiet joy at his center: “If you sit still long enough, and listen, the trees will talk to you.”