The Carelessness of Trees

Apr 10, 2018

Credit Robert Finch

I was walking in the backwoods with a friend the other day.  He was waxing philosophical about trees, drawing lessons from life about them. “Look at the circle of life here,” he said. “Here you have healthy trees standing tall, others dying and dead all around them. But look, on the ground, are new shoots, just beginning to grow, and actually nurtured by the old dead trunks.” 

I simply nodded, not wanting to spoil his sentimental view of trees. I find I grow more and more suspicious of views of nature that see kinship between us and other species, especially when we try to wrest “lessons’ from nature to apply to our human lives. It seems to me rather that the more closely and objectively we look at other species, the stranger and more alien they become.  

For example, that is his view of trees.  Here’s another: 
The woods here are ordinary woods, too – made up almost entirely of pitch pines and various species of oaks. The pines are taller, thicker, older than the oaks, which are, for the most part, thin, scraggly and short. But appearances are deceptive – at least when it comes to trees.  Though the pines seem to dominate these woods, there are no young pines coming up under them. Pitch pines do not thrive under the shade of their parents – oaks do.  In a few decades – barring a natural catastrophe such as fire or gypsy moth infestations– these oaks will dominate these woods – “succeed” is the botanist’s kinder word – and hardly a pitch pine will be found. 

Old story.  Ordinary scene. Yet I am always struck at how, well, tolerant trees seem to be.   These pines do not protest or whine about their eventual fate. I could say they seem to accept it with grace, except that they have no choice. They do not seem to mind broken limbs hanging from their trunks, or the carcasses of dead trees lying about their bases, or fungus, lichen and moss growing on their bark, or insect galls deforming their limbs and branches. On second thought, perhaps “tolerant” is not the best word to express their attitude. “Indifferent” to their condition seems more accurate. 

Again, it’s a scene so ordinary, so obvious, we don’t think twice about it unless we’re a forest manager. But, just for the fun of it, let’s put ourselves in the place of trees: Imagine, if you will, a sylvan grove filled with the forms of tall and beautiful men and women.  They are handsome and noble, with lush green hair, inspiring to behold.  Yet they seem unaware that their feet are permanently imprisoned in the earth or that diseased and dead arms and limbs hang limply from their torsos. There is obviously life in them, running just under their rough skin, but their hearts are dead. Many of them are already invaded by lignophagic, or wood-eating organisms. Some have had their heads split open by lightning, though that doesn’t seem to stop, or affect, their conversation. Nor do they seem aware of the many decaying corpses of their neighbors lying on the ground about their feet. They don’t even scratch at the many scabrous growths on their skin. And when strange, ambulatory creatures enter their groves with loud roaring machines, they do not even bother to mention them to their companions before they are cut down and sawn into pieces.  

Come to think of it, even “indifferent” seems too active a word to describe the attitude of trees. Perhaps “unaware.” Perhaps “transcendentally serene.” My own choice, I think, is “careless.” Trees are careless. That is, they don’t care about their fate. And that’s the crucial difference between people and trees. As Annie Dillard once said, the curse of evolution is not that we die, but that we care that we die.