A Talk with the Woods - Learn How to Listen

A Talk with the Woods

“Go sit under a tree and listen and think.” ~ Walt Whitman

This week's post is written by my uncle, Jerry Covault. Jerry is a retired United States Forest Service Ranger. During his 33 years spent working on National Forests in Oregon, Colorado, Wyoming and Montana, he has learned about the relationships between mountains, forests, soils, weather, fire, animals and people.

Jerry shares some of his unique experiences in his new book "About Forests and People". He resolves to stimulate interest and curiosity about trees and forests and how people use them both through the ages and at present time. Jerry also discusses the problems our forests and environment have today and he suggests a few things that can help.

The following essay by Jerry Covault is taken from his book "About Forests and People".

A Talk with the Woods

Fragment: From the Alfoxden Notebook (I)

And never for each other shall we feel
As we may feel, till we have sympathy
With nature in her forms inanimate,
With objects such as have no power to hold
Articulate language. In all forms of things
There is a mind

~ William Wordsworth

The forests’ brilliant colors, spring wildflowers of many kind, is how urgency looks. There’s growing to do! And only a short time to do it. Every plant, from the tallest tree to the smallest forb has to gather “food” and energy to itself and convert that into leaves, stem, roots and flowers. Each flower competes with every other flower in the neighborhood to attract a bee, a wasp, or other bug or breeze to do the pollination so a seed can grow. The motivation for all this activity is nothing less than the life for the individual and perpetuation of the species. That is purposeful action.

But, I’m here in the fall, the season of intensity is over for what we people call “this year”. The growing during the intense season is done, the flowers have done their job, or not. The grass has turned brown, the leaves of the mountain maple and the nine-bark are red, the pine needles are getting a deeper green and the larch needles are beginning to turn yellow, soon they will fall away. On this day the woods are very quiet, here-and-there is the skeleton of a gentian, spring beauty, balsamroot, or any other plant that was green a few weeks earlier. The seeds they produced are tucked into the small spaces between fallen pine needles, grass stems, shallow roots and bodies of insects that made their living eating such stuff. It’s a quiet time. And the woods will tell you that, -- if you listen.

“Listen?” “Listen to what?” “Trees and forbs can’t talk.”

True. But, there is tremendous pleasure in listening, feeling, seeking what the poets know about nature. For millennia those special people have talked about a “consciousness” that exists throughout nature.

“Consciousness?” “What’s that about?”

Start with us, we are conscious beings, that is, we are aware of ourselves and what’s going on around us, and, we have a subconscious somewhere deep within us. If we listen, that subconscious can guide us, more or less, to our own good. It lets us know what we should do and it may provide premonitions. Also, we people have a big, powerful, “what’s happen’en and what to do now” brain that can, and often does, override our subconscious mind. All this is pretty much common knowledge (wives tales) that is now being backed up by the scientists studying the human brain, mind and behavior.

Let’s take that “consciousness” thing into the forest. Every individual there performs certain actions at certain times to perpetuate its individual life and its species. That would seem to qualify as a consciousness, even if there is no big powerful brain to override it (as far as we know). The poets “feel” that consciousness in nature, and so do a lot of non-poets. American Indian stories are about people being “plugged into the natural world” and so are the stories of other cultures. With the fall of a waring and cruel Assyrian king, (700 BCE) the prophet Isaiah wrote about the earth’s reaction saying, “The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet: they break forth into singing. Yea the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us” (Isaiah 14: 7 and 8).

War takes a huge toll on forests, Isaiah is making it clear that forests have a consciousness and awareness of abuse.

Try this. Go to a natural place, leave your troubles, leave economics (not the national debt stuff, the “I want --” stuff - whether it’s catching a fish today, or getting rich), leave science, leave political stuff, leave religion in the rig. Get out and walk on the land -- mountain, plain, forest, grassland, wherever, with your mind like a clean erased blackboard. Be in the now. Really see beauty and feel what there is to feel, let nature write on your blackboard. Sense what’s going on in this place, how it’s doing. What is right and good for this place will start to seep into your mind. You’re becoming aware of the consciousness of that place. The sense of urgency in spring, the sense of quietness in fall, a sense of deep concern when there are threats (fire, disease, human impact), or, if the ecosystem is ill. This is the place’s consciousness.

OK, that sounds like knowing the science of nature, and it is, but science is about collecting and analyzing data to draw conclusions. This is different, if you walk quietly and let awareness rather than facts seep in, that awareness is about the place’s consciousness, that place’s capabilities, purpose, health and susceptibility.

So what? Will all that make anyone any money? Will it help write a paper that will be accepted in a peer reviewed scientific journal?

Probably not. But, it’s a tool that we have never tried to used. We make decisions concerning using natural resources based on economics, laws (influenced by economics), political power (influenced by economics), and (hopefully) science. By now we should be figuring out that there is another player in this equation, NATURE. We need to be consulting nature. What we’ve been doing is like the health insurance company and the doctor deciding to operate without ever consulting the patient. Seeking nature’s consciousness is outside science, outside economics, outside politics, outside man-made laws, and we don’t know how to determine what it is or how to take it seriously in our decision making. We need to learn. We’re facing some big questions that could use some insight - and input - from Nature.

Should we genetically alter animals to grow more food? Have we done right by genetically altering plants to produce more insecticides within their bodies, or resist certain herbicides? Should we be deep drilling for oil in the oceans? Are we right to bring back wolves? If so, where? What do the elk think about that (what’s their consciousness)? What do the aspen forests think about wolves? How many people can our Earth support? At what life style? Global Warming - human caused or not - is telling us something. How can we listen beyond science and economics? How can we use what we and nature “feel” in decision making? How can we use what the poets have been telling us? You can fill in other big questions, and small ones.

Understanding Nature’s consciousness can be the next big tool to help people live better with one another and with our home, Earth. That kind of knowing is beyond science and it is not the pure faith that religion requires. It is an area of knowledge we haven’t developed the tools to investigate, we need to get to work on it, because this Earth is talking to us.

The Tables Turned

Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your Teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds ands hearts to bless --
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

~ William Wordsworth

There is a real good chance all this will illicit the response, “This is just nuts.” “This would cost us money.” OK, -- Assume that NATURE has no consciousness, no purpose, and we will just forget the whole thing and keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. But, WHOA, do we really think that’s working all that well? Will the way we’re doing things sustain the Earth and us people for the next 400 generations, 10,000 years, and help us to live in harmony with each other and nature? Our present performance isn’t that reassuring.

It’s clear, if we will listen, Nature is not without its own purpose - not without “being” (as in “to have or to be”) - and, she has a lot to say. We can benefit by learning how to listen.

The Logos is Eternal

One must talk about everything according to its nature,
how it comes to be and how it grows.
Men have talked about the world without paying attention
to the world or to their own minds,
as if they were asleep or absent-minded

~ Herakleitos (5th century B.C.)

If you're interested in exploring more about the relationship between people and our forests, please check out this link: About Forests and People

Trees and forbs can't talk

Do trees have a conscience?

Go to a natural place

Go out and walk on the land

Walk quietly

Understanding nature

Let nature be your teacher

Live in harmony with nature

Nature has a lot to say


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