- Words by
- Jeff Perry
- Illustration by
- Abbey Rich
I talk with trees. More aptly, I listen ninety-nine per cent of the time and occasionally ask a question or pepper in a prompt of my own. I am as ordinary as can be: white American male, dad, Little League coach. I initially thought of tree talking as an extraordinary experience (for a Western modern), but maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s an essential part of what it is to be human.
I work at a lumber mill and yard. It’s atypical, at least by modern standards: we mill downed trees from parks, roadsides and backyards across Los Angeles into lumber and wood products to sell back to our community.
As a lumberman, I don’t fully comprehend the occupation of a mortician. From what little I do understand, it strikes me that we at Angel City Lumber are tree undertakers. We usher the deceased, proverbially embalm and dress the physical form, and present the body in honour and remembrance to the community.
Witnessing a freshly milled log is ephemeral magic and true honour – it is the inside of a tree’s first exposure to air and sunlight in hundreds of years.
Grain patterns are revealed and vibrant colours materialise as bound cellular water releases to the timber’s surface. Over time, the intimacy, attention and wonder of this process became a form of meditation, reconnecting me to an awareness of something from which I was previously disengaged.
I started to sense impulses from these trees – vibrations in a language beyond words. Listening, I attempted to represent their dialogue in English language. Through conversations – with living and dead trees – I have been exposed to the vulnerability and dignity of these beings through their ‘words’.
I typically ask two questions: ‘What have you experienced?’ and ‘What small wish may I carry out for you in your honour?’ A coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia) asked me to return and adorn them, and four others, with a necklace made of wood shavings to ‘show the dark spirits we are cared for and not alone’. I did. A mystery eucalyptus, maybe E. camaldulensis, said: ‘I wish that you connect with this land too. Your impulse to lie beneath my branches is divine. Lie down on this land on which I stand …’ I did.
My dialogues with trees have had a profound effect on the way I interact with every being, everything. Everything speaks. If we listen to what’s being said, we can learn, empathise and love. It is far more difficult (though not impossible) to inflict harm on someone or something you love.
In our deep-seated fear for our changing planet, we could simply listen to instead of pontificate about the needs of the more-than-human world. If a Little League coach can do it, anyone can.