Sunday, July 17, 2011

Listening to the trees

Listening to the trees

By Bobby Neal Winters

Sometimes at night I will be lying awake in the darkness and the trees will talk to me. The traffic from the bypass will be nil. The sirens will be silent. The trains will be still.

And I can hear the trees. Some folks who are of a different turn might say that the wind is causing vibration in the leaves on the trees, but I know they are speaking to me. They say, “There is a storm coming” or “The storm will skirt off” or “There will be rain but no wind” or “There will only be wind.” Sometimes it’s hard to tell because I don’t speak tree as well as I used to. I grew up speaking tree all the time, but these days I’ve lost my fluency.

But they speak to me anyway, the ones around the house do, because I’ve planted them all. Wait that is inaccurate. My wife and I have planted them, or, in some cases, have suffered to allow them to remain planted. Some of our trees are the result of forgetful squirrels. The squirrels did the planting, but we allowed them first through ignorance and then through laziness and then through sentimentality to remain.

A tree in town is a lot of responsibility because it makes trash. It is a bother. Then in the winter ice can break off limbs and in the spring a storm might come through and push it onto your house or, worse, your neighbor’s.

But through various combinations of arboreal enthusiasm, squirrel dementia, and luck, we’ve got a yard full of trees. They are mature, healthy, and in their prime. I’ve seem some of them grow from things that could be quite happy in a plastic cup, contemplating a choice between bonsai-hood and life out in the yard, to something that could heat a home for a few days.

When I was a boy, I lived among trees. There were trees in the space--the park we called it--between my house and that of my grandparents. There were a group of five or six that I think of in particular. There were others that stood in a line, but these were grouped into what I want to call a copse. I don’t actually know what a copse is. It is a fine word connected with groups of trees, but it seems so fine that perhaps five or six trees is not enough to form one.

Nevertheless, there were these trees which--to me as a boy--seemed to be giant trees. These were what trees were like when they grew up. I thought of them as being eternal, existing forever into the past as had my father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother, who were also giants themselves.

But into my hands comes a strange, old picture: men sitting, standing, squatting beneath this copse of trees. It is clearly the same trees that I had grown up with, but they are different. They are smaller. They are not the trees that were eternal and existed, going forever into the past. These trees who had taught me their language were once young trees. The men beneath them were younger versions of my grandfather, my father, my uncles.

My grandfather, my father, my uncles are all now gone. And the copse of trees was greatly wounded by the storms of this last spring. The winds fell them and my brother had them piled and burned, smoke rising as from the pyre of a fallen Caesar.

Men and trees are both mortal. If the god’s and heroes can pass, then so can I.

My trees are talking to me again, and it is not the wind in the leaves. They are growing taller, looking like trees are supposed to look when they grow up. I’ve pictures of myself standing beside them when they are yet baby trees, child trees, adolescent trees. My hair has grown whiter; my face more etched with laugh-lines; my shape more like that of the adult male gorilla.

Trees have a less predictable life as they live in the out of doors. They may be fell by wind or winter, but I know they may well outlive me. After I am gone, they may still be giving shade to the passerby and food to the squirrel. Given the memory span of the squirrel and the inattention, laziness, and sentimentality of the human animal, they may do that for yet another generation.

At least this is what they tell me. Do you hear it?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Those Ancient Conversations: Archimedes and Cousin Gary

When I was just a boy, my cousin Gary Burnett lived in Arizona. He told us, my brother and me, stories about it. There were plants there with thorns that, if I remember correctly, could shoot them at you even if you just walked too near. And the desert was deadly. You could get into trouble from the heat and die from it before you knew it.

Then there was a story about a family that had been on a trip and had car trouble. They had abandoned their car and attempted to make it back to civilization for help. They had died along the way. The youngest children had died first, closest to the car; then older children; and last the father, his family scrubbed from existence before his eyes. Death must’ve come as a bitter mercy to him.

As I say, I was a child when I heard this, and, as far as I know, I only heard it once. It made an impression on me. So much was this the case that when I was in Utah in the mid-nineties, at least twenty years later, I never went anywhere out of the Provo city limits without six gallons of water with me. For years, I never heard the words “Arizona” or “desert” without having a flash of skeletonized remains and mummified flesh stretched across bone.

Did I mention that Gary was a really good storyteller?

Now imagine that you are a storyteller and have a good story to tell, but there is no one around to tell your story to, or, I should say, there was no one to tell your story to who was capable of understanding it.

This was the case with Archimedes. I am reading a book now called The Archimedes Codex which is about the rediscovery and recovery of the so-called Archimedes palimpsest. According to this book, Archimedes had outlived the last person he believed capable of understanding him and so began writing letters to individuals at the library at Alexandria in order that they might be preserved for future generations when other worthy minds might come along who could understand what Archimedes was saying.

Those minds did come along from time to time. He was so far advanced from his contemporaries that his writings were almost lost, but they did survive long enough to come into the hands of such a Galileo and Newton to help kindle modern science.

This idea of being ahead of one’s time is important. We are surrounded by the achievements of the past which serve as scaffolding for us. We may climb high without much effort using structure which took hundreds or thousands of years to build. For example, Archimedes didn’t have algebra.

For most algebra is something they are forced to learn that they will never use. For those who use it, it is a language that facilitates the solving of problems. What is now the work of a few minutes and a few lines to an average high school student was once the work of many days of a great mind using many pages of argument. Algebra and other tools of mathematics provide an infrastructure for scientific ideas.

Archimedes worked without that infrastructure. It took almost two-thousand years for the language to catch up to where he was. He had faith to know that it would, so he wrote letters to the future.

I think about this in connection with Bible study. We are eavesdropping on a conversation that is thousands of years old. Parts of the conversation are like things we heard when we were very young. We heard our parents say words and saw them do things that we didn’t understand; sense data without a connecting narrative. As adults we can look back to try to piece it all together.

As with Archimedes, over the millennia, the language in which we can discuss the Bible has been built by the many great minds which have encountered it. Traditions have formed to help us along.

The stories my cousin Gary told us about Arizona scared us, but life has brought me experience to aid in interpreting those stories. The fear is still there, but experience brought knowledge to mature that fear into respect. The danger is just as real as he described: while in Utah, we learned out own desert horror stories.

But we did make desert trips. The knowledge that others gained and shared helped us to make it. The National Park system, cellphones, and highways were a help too.