Arboreal Pedagogy

“I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree.” — Joyce Kilmer

‘Beautiful Decay’ by Adam Gonnerman (CC BY 4.0)

On a beautiful late summer day last year I went for a walk in the woods. When I was a child I often played with friends in the woods of northeast Missouri, and when I was alone I went on silent, meditative walks there as well. The New Jersey woods aren’t so different, although depending on where you go there could well be many other people around. On that day last year I managed to find a quiet part of the woods where I could think and observe. I was particularly struck by the fallen trees. Everywhere I saw trees toppled over, in varying stages of decay. Some appeared to have been recently felled, mostly from the roots as though by a strong storm when the ground had already been soaked. Others went back years. Then I noticed the shadow-like outlines of long dead trees.

‘Outline’ by Adam Gonnerman (CC BY 4.0)

The soil in these outlines was incredibly rich, and I knew that if I took some and planted something in it, the growth would be spectacular. These trees had been dead so long that they reverted completely to the earth from which they sprang. While they lived they were homes for insects, birds, and small mammals. They drew carbon dioxide from the air and released oxygen. Their leaves fell to the ground and made the topsoil richer, year after year. When eventually they died, more insects took up residence, as well as fungi and moss. They were food for these creatures. Over the years they fell apart, bit by bit, until all that remained was this brown mark on the ground that resembled their shape in life. Even now they provide nutrients to growing things.

A person’s life can be like those trees. We start out very small, taking in the world, making friends, learning lessons. A wise person values the lives around them, and gives reciprocates with those that sustain them. She learns a trade or profession, contributing in the arts, science, or the maintenance of society. A family is built, either of her children or of those who share the road with her. When ultimately she passes into death, she leaves behind memories and a legacy of good for those who live on. Even after the memory of her is gone, traces remain and ripple — however faintly — into the ages.

Being ‘productive’ means different things to different people. We’re all different. If I do my best at what I love, and love those in my life, life can be personally satisfying, and I can fall into unknowing nothing in peace.