Listen to this story
Recently, on a plane, I remembered the moment when the plane began to descend beneath the clouds. One moment, I could see the brightly lit and expanding city unfolding out below me, a brilliant landscape of lights and systemized movement. Then the plane began to dip below the clouds, and in that stretched-out moment of time, it felt as if everything slowed down and expanded around me, crushing me with the expanded density, the suffocating largeness of it all, the claustrophobic realization of space and height and my place on that plane, with all the other people sitting in their seats around me. My eyes locked only with the dismal and thick, thick white outside the window, looming and full; the momentary lapse in sight that was, in its own way, a kind of opening of vision, a revelation. When the apocalyptic moment passed and the city burst forth again beneath the clouds and the familiar brightness reminded me that no time had passed at all, not really, but also knowing that I had lived an eternal purgatory in that moment, as if alone and shivering and quivering in the corner of a tiled shower, the water pouring down and myself a body that could only shake and absorb the water through the skin as the tears rolled out my eyes. And when my feet were finally on the ground again, I thought only of the immensity and magnificence of the sky.
In these strange and sensitive moments when my anxiety flaunts itself as a determined and reverential haunting of sorts, I remember what it was that I really learned from my mother, what I really know through her, because of her, and after her.
I think about a particular individual, perhaps a rare bird, one who has been exiled for documenting facts and archiving flight patterns and creating maps and observing different species of trees, this bird who sees value in concretizing memory to outlast one’s own life and trajectory. This bird is also capable of being homesick, of longing for a home that exists or could one day exist, because language, diagrammed and phantomized and stricken, is also capable of forging a threshold between this world and the dream world, and so that in-betweenness might be construed as a concrete space, and there might be new language vociferated to articulate all that does not yet fit into the confines of the current restrictions of what is known.
That is, there are so many different types of knowing, and we have so many words to describe all these forms of knowing that privilege certainty and fact and truth, so that everything else becomes relegated to the dismal categories of feeling or intuition, as if there is a hierarchy predicated on certainty, though we know of course that certainty is an illusion and a framework for control, for cutting down trees, for carving out swaths of land to be territorialized on maps as evidence, for allowing some categories of living beings to have hope and for others to never glimpse the possibility of future beyond tomorrow.
When I was a little girl, my mother taught me the the Korean concept of nunchi (눈치). When I was older, I came across more official definitions that defined nunchi (a combination of the Korean words for “eye” and “measure”) as an unspoken social intuition, an awareness of the feelings of those around you, or the ability to sense another person’s mood. Growing up, though, I felt this concept more eminently. It is about survival, my mother would repeat to me. That friend of yours, 눈치 없다. (She doesn’t have nunchi.) Without a dictionary definition of the word, I inherited a feeling of this concept and its importance through the way my mother would use it to describe other people and in the ways she forced me to pay attention to invisible gestures, details, resonances, feelings. Essentially, she taught me to feel at a distance.
This, of course, is the definition of telepathy. Coined by Frederick W.H. Myers in 1882, telepathy essentially means “feeling at a distance.” In English, we only have words for “intuition” and “feeling” to describe all the kinds of knowing that aren’t grounded in logic, rationale, fact, or certainty. And we tend to dismiss telepathy as an interesting but unprovable concept. For many reasons, our culture has privileged scientific types of knowledge and deemed feelings and emotions as unreliable, uncertain, unpredictable. The thing is when we think of humans and other animals, much of the genetic code for what we’ve labeled “feelings” or “instinct” is some of the oldest code that is shared between humans and other lineages of living species. Evolution has modified and built off more primitive versions of “instinct” or “feeling,” but not only are feelings not unique to humans, I’d also like to consider them one of our most ancient (and therefore reliable) ways of knowing. (For example, there are studies showing how our brains often make decisions instinctually several seconds before we are aware of them, and then we actually spend the remainder of our time rationalizing and justifying the decision that our unconscious has already made for us.)
I have often felt imperceptible shifts in the environment around me, different resonances that resound on frequencies that don’t seem to be visible to a rational frame of mind. Is it so terrible to be irrational?
Life is a series of breaths: to see a perspective only when the seer and the seen are perfectly aligned. That is, to be in a position to be able to see and to want to see. For example, a lunar eclipse occurs only when the sun, earth, and moon are aligned in syzygy, our home planet’s shadow creeping across the moon until the moon appears red because our atmosphere acts as a filter for the sun’s light.
How often we forget the scale of the universe: That is, as Carl Sagan famously declared, we are only a pale blue dot in the vast landscape of space.
How often we forget to look: That is, to look past the mundanities of rational and privileged life and see the worlds exploding between our feet and inside weathered cracks.
How often we forget about the arrogance of finality: That is, with cultural concepts like the apocalypse, we lean toward narratives with grand endings, ones that promise linear time, resolution, and redemption and therefore attempt to secure our role as a worthwhile species in the overall scheme of things.
How often we forget about the constructedness of language: That is, though we articulate what we know using the limits of language, the limits of language are not the same as the limits of knowing.
How often we forget that position and perception are related: That is, we study the gravitational effects of, on, and between planetary bodies but often forget that human bodies, animal bodies, bodies of water are also affected by these same forces and that we are not uniquely immune to any of them.
How often we forget that our future stopped existing a long time ago: That is, our ability to speculate on a future beyond the constraints of the present involves a larger and different vantage point than the one we have limited ourselves to; that because the past and future intersect in the present moment, it is in this present moment that we must learn to see differently.
Witnessing the apocalyptic (not final, but catastrophic; not singular, but simultaneous; not biblical, but unseen) devastation that seems to have become a static reality, and sitting here, feeling the invisible embers of cosmic tremors, it’s hard not to see how we’ve simply deferred the future so many times that we can no longer see where the present ends and where the future begins. For me, this is a question of hope. To be blunt, shit is fucked up on a very large scale, and I think there is little left to be learned from humans’ forms of knowing. And so I have turned to the trees, the moss, the birds, all the other and synchronous forms of knowledge that we have largely ignored or buried.
Let’s consider trees. Standing in an immense forest still induces feelings of awe. This isn’t just about sheer size or power, but how a forest, a community of towering trees, affects our perception of interconnectivity and intimacy and breath by reminding us of the forces of life, the impossibility of presence, and the obviousness of influence.
The oldest trees in the world are thousands of years old. These trees have seen the births and deaths of nations, the migration of human populations, the evolution and extinction of life. How could we not benefit tremendously from the knowledge of trees? How could we not listen?
I first learned truly about the generosity of trees from my friend N.R., who reminded me, as I pressed my palm against the trunk of a huge oak tree, how trees absorb so much for us, not just carbon dioxide and other harmful gasses, but also our pain, anxiety, suffering; how trees gladly extend their wisdom if you only might ask. Always leave an offering, she reminded me. Always remember to express your gratitude to the tree. I lifted my hand away and obeyed her instructions by pouring out the remainder of my water bottle over the tree’s massive roots.
I want to change the way you think about forests. You see, underground there is this other world, a world of infinite biological pathways that connect trees and allow them to communicate and allow the forest to behave as though it’s a single organism. It might remind you of a sort of intelligence. —Suzanne Simard, “How Trees Talk to Each Other”
[T]ree songs emerge from relationship. Although tree trunks seemingly stand as detached individuals, their lives subvert this atomistic view. We’re all trees — trees, humans, insects, birds, bacteria — pluralities. Life is embodied network…Our ethic must therefore be one of belonging, an imperative made all the more urgent by the many ways that human actions are fraying, rewiring, and severing biological networks worldwide. To listen to trees, nature’s great connectors, is therefore to learn how to inhabit the relationships that give life its source, substance, and beauty. —David George Haskell, The Songs of Trees
Apart from humans, maybe, trees are the best form of life on this planet. Trees remain in one place, but reach elsewhere always. They stretch down into the ground, and they constantly strain toward the sun. They are the embodiment of our shared presence on a rocky planet that orbits a star. Hedgehogs and helminths may be interesting, but they don’t constantly remind us, simply by existing, that we are in a solar system. —Rebecca Boyle, “Make Like a Tree and Get Outta Here”
Trees can teach us about interconnectedness and intimacy and communication. We are, after all, more interconnected than we perceive, and the invisible communicatory gestures between all living things are just as significant as the visible ones. Trees can teach us about time and slowness and patience. Trees are slow; they don’t operate on the level of seconds, moments, even hours, nor do they think so constantly of immediate futures. Trees take years, real time. They live and die each year, and yet their lifetimes encompass centuries. Trees can teach us about cycles and circularity. Seasons, cycles of the planet, and patterns both local and beyond are perceived by trees. Time is not linear, trees remind us. Trees can teach us about the long breath, about breathing, about presence. We could learn so much from just looking more closely at the process that involves constant and steady breath, sunlight, growth, water. We could learn more about balance and collaboration, about the merging of body and mind that is unique in every individual but intertwined with the network of other living, breathing beings. Trees can teach us about movement and scale. (Did you know that trees migrate?) Growth patterns and migration patterns of trees exist, just on a different scale than our own. We might learn to see past our own context, past the importance of a single species.
Then, trees can teach us to listen differently, to see differently, to perceive differently, to feel differently, to live differently.
What is important is that seeing trees—not only as trees, but as collaborators, neighbors, givers — allows us to view our own communities and ourselves in a different light. Telepathy is about feeling at a distance, and this is what is required when we attempt to communicate with and listen to anyone who is not your own self. To go further, perhaps it isn’t just telepathy that is required, but clairvoyance. Clairvoyance (“clear vision”) isn’t just about the ability to perceive events in the future. Because the past and future collide so loudly in the present, clairvoyance, in this moment of the speculative present, is also the ability to perceive events that are happening right in front of you, the invisible and spectral gestures of the present, all that is imperceptible or “unknowable.” Do we ever stop conjuring ghosts? Even still, why don’t we listen?
Because I don’t yet fully understand the extent of the telepathy between plants, I water the small patch of moss I am growing on a stone in my bathroom according to the weather patterns outside. On rainy days, I generously drench it with water. On sunny days, just a spritz to mimic the morning dew. When I am traveling, I ask my sister to water the moss while I am gone, just as I also ask her and my father to take care of my dogs while I am gone. If the moss can perceive what is happening outside, or if it is able to communicate with its comrades just on the other side of the window, I want it to feel in synchronicity with its community. So far, it seems to be thriving and is already growing new shoots.
There are many things to say about moss, but perhaps I could just point you to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s wonderful book, Gathering Moss, in which I learned about, through moss, adaptation, in-between states, resiliency, compassion, learning to see, and giving thanks.
Among other characteristics, moss (and the creatures that live among the moss like birds among trees: water bears, or tardigrades, and rotifers) blurs the distinctions between life and death. As Kimmerer writes, “All signs of life are extinguished when they are dry: no movement, no gas exchange, no metabolism. All enter a state known as anabiosis, or lack of life. And yet, as soon as water is returned, life suddenly is renewed. Their apparent death, followed by resuscitation, suggested that life might be stopped and then restarted.” Like with trees and the passage of seasons, we might learn to see past the simple narrative of birth and death and understand the importance of cycles, perhaps also learning to not constantly flee the face of death and instead embrace those processes that affect all those around us, widening one’s own consciousness to encompass so many others.
I also learn, from moss, the importance of language. Many mosses don’t have common names, just their scientific ones, because they aren’t normally attended to by the public in the same way as other plants (trees, flowers, edible vegetables). And yet the vocabulary Kimmerer teaches her students (gametophytes, sporophytes, acrocarps, pleurocarps, etc.) helps the students see the moss more closely, more intimately: “With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see.”
It is true that as I learned the words to describe different parts of a moss and different species, I started examining the different mosses that grow in my front yard, in my neighborhood, and in nearby forests, saying their species out loud, calling them by name, pointing at their sporophytes and attempting to bridge the chasm between our seemingly distant species.
Beyond the dignity that might be bestowed living beings by naming, even the grammar with which we use to describe plants greatly affects our entire worldview. For example, in English, we set aside special pronouns (he, she) for human subjects, relegating all nonhumans, objects, trees, mosses, even animals to the category of “it.” Why do we put so much stake in personhood? Kimmerer reminds us that in Potawatomi (as well as other indigenous languages), there is no “it” for nature or beings that exist as part of nature. She writes in an essay, “Living beings are referred to as subjects, never as objects, and personhood is extended to all who breathe and some who don’t.”
Because we speak and live with this language every day, our minds have also been colonized by this notion that the nonhuman living world and the world of inanimate objects have equal status.
Bulldozers, buttons, berries, and butterflies are all referred to as it, as things, whether they are inanimate industrial products or living beings…[W]e need words that heal that relationship, that invite us into an inclusive worldview of personhood for all beings.
Because we provide such preferential treatment for humans in our everyday use of grammar and language, it becomes easy for us to create a hierarchy, supported linguistically, that privileges humans over all other objects and animal species. With this subject/object dichotomy built into our use of language, and with a linguistic hierarchy that holds humans above all other species, it becomes all too easy to create a similar hierarchy within our own species. That is, we are already accustomed to privileging subjects via linguistic differentiation, and so we can start to see categories of humans as being “better than” or “less than.” We’ve already seen the consequences of such thinking, and continue to see them: false differentiations of race, color, gender and other characteristics as having caused significant damage to our collective consciousness.
Tomorrow, you will go up the mountain. Tomorrow you will sleep and you will dream. Tomorrow, you will kneel down before a tree and realize what it has given you, what you have taken, what you have received. And you will eventually hear the language of the birds and the language of the trees, and you will remember what it was like before home was stripped away from you, and then, on your knees, you will remember how to stand tall like the trees, eyes unfixed and seeing in all directions, especially down, because this is where things happen too, below you, and though gravity asks bodies to fall down, hope asks bodies to rise up.
I return to knowing and the core of it all, the breath, the long and sustained breath that connects us all together. In a time when it seems that people are wanting to feel less and think more, I wonder about the benefits of us all learning to feel more, at a distance. How might our vision of the future change when we can learn to receive more in the present? How might an understanding of telepathy make us more compassionate with trees, with those around us? And how might an understanding of the resilience of moss change our understanding and perception of the future? If only, for a moment. Just remember to breathe.
About this DIGITAL ZINE