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a single tree in a field against a setting sun

Lessons on Authenticity From the Trees


Silent and imposing, such beings speak of the art of being (and not of appearances).

The infinite modesty of trees leads us, often enough, to forget their very existence. Beyond mere discretion, few virtues are more powerful than authenticity, our ability to simply be ourselves no matter the situation or context. Trees, considered by Walt Whitman as beings “so innocent and harmless, yet so savage,” are creatures which, beyond providing joy and beauty, also speak to us in a timeless language. They are, according to the poet, formidable and improbable reflections of the noblest in the human character.

When Whitman was 54 years old, a decade after working as a nurse during the Civil War (an event awoke in the poet an interest in the connection between body and spirit), he suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed, and from which it would take many years to recover. During this time, Whitman made frequent visits to open places to get fresh air and to enjoy nature. He eventually held this contact with the natural world ultimately responsible for his healing. The record of his convalescence is found in the book Specimen Days, a collection of essays and thoughts on life, on his participation in the war, and forming the closest thing we have to an autobiography.

A tree growing near the ocean over a road

During this same period, Whitman wrote in the forest where the open spaces and nature inspired him (deeply romantic as he was). One summer in 1876, while standing before his favorite tree – a poplar of yellowish leaves measuring some 30 meters – he witnessed the tree’s authenticity, a being which didn’t offer appearances, but one which merely was.

“How strong, vital, enduring! How dumbly eloquent! What suggestions of imperturbability and being, as against the human trait of mere seeming. Then the qualities, almost emotional, palpably artistic, heroic, of a tree; so innocent and harmless, yet so savage. It is, yet says nothing.”

As to the tree, its heroic life, and its secret language, the poet drew lessons worth remembering:

One lesson from affiliating a tree—perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse—what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage—humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

It’s thus that the poet endows such beings with a condition which makes of them silent teachers who, paradoxically, have still so much to tell us. Finally, trees speak to us only if we have the lucidity listen to them:

“Science (or rather half-way science) scoffs at reminiscence of dryad and hamadryad, and of trees speaking. But, if they don’t, they do as well as most speaking, writing, poetry, sermons — or rather they do a great deal better. I should say indeed that those old dryad-reminiscences are quite as true as any, and profounder than most reminiscences we get.”

Here, Whitman explains the wisdom of trees (from whom we’ve so much to learn), that magic surrounding them, available to us all, if only we know how to listen.


Image: 1) Pixabay 2) Wikimedia

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