The Trees and I
By John Palka — Posted January 10, 2016
In the mid-1970s I had a remarkable experience while walking in ancient forests on the west side of the Cascade Mountains of Washington. I had set out on a solo hike that took me from the valley bottom up several thousand feet to a ridgetop well above timberline. The trail was good, but it followed endless switchbacks up and up the steep slope and was, frankly, rather monotonous. My mind started to wander. On other hikes on other days it might have gone in any direction—the myriad tasks and stresses of building a career as a young university professor, the latest drama in our family, my hobby of photography—but on this particular day it took an unexpected turn. I started musing about genes.
Now musing about genes—not solving genetic puzzles or trying to recall the details of the latest experiment, but musing—that is an unusual activity even for a biologist. I don’t remember how it started, I don’t remember most of my fragmentary thoughts, but I do remember with startling vividness the moment when something internal happened that transformed my intellectual understanding into a felt experience.
The understanding which I was discussing with myself as I walked is that I share many genes with the trees all around me. The form and physiology of a tree are vastly different from my own, but we share a number of life processes. Like the cells of my own body, the cells of the trees carry out respiration, move ions across their membranes, replicate DNA, and synthesize proteins. These processes are basically the same in me and in the trees, carried out by much the same molecules, and therefore the genes that encode these molecules must be closely similar.
How, despite our obvious differences, had the trees and I come to share so much? Because we had common ancestors, albeit many eons ago. I was walking among very distant cousins, far older and larger than I, rooted in place, directly capturing the sun’s energy while I have to eat to survive, but cousins nevertheless, my biological kin. At that point my mind stopped talking to itself, and for a few moments I was left with a wordless understanding that was of a different kind than the understanding born of intellectual discourse. I was grasping an essential truth that was based on familiar science, but the nature of the grasping had a quality that I was not able to put into words, and that, even if I could, a scientific journal would probably never allow to be published on its pages.
I took my solo hike through the Cascades over forty years ago, and much in my life has changed since then. Hiking is not so easy any more. I retired from the University of Washington over a decade ago. More than a few anniversaries have passed since Yvonne and I celebrated fifty years of marriage, and instead of ten-year-old children we now have grandchildren graduating from college. My felt sense of a familial relationship with the trees, however, and with the whole web of life, and through living things with the whole of the cosmos, is still with me.
For me this is a gift that sprang from intensive scientific training and an active pursuit of science. There are other routes by which people with other passions have reached a similar sense of relatedness with the world around them, but for me the route has been science. Through Nature’s Depths I am trying to share some of the beauties of this route, and to make the route inviting even to readers for whom science is not a mode of understanding and relating that they have cultivated in the past.
I invite you to try this for yourself. Set out on a walk and take any idea that you have come across on Nature’s Depths with you: the diversity of organisms all around you; colors, and how they arise; photosynthesis, and how it powers your own life. Try experiencing the living world all around you through these perspectives, and see whether it doesn’t help you feel more intimately a part of it yourself.
Beautiful Johnny! I articulate something very much along these lines in Sacred Depths of Nature at the end of chapter 5.
It’s sad that many continue to believe that these understandings somehow “spoil” nature for them. I guess it’s our job to help them past that so they can share with us these wonderful epiphanies.
You are just ahead of me. This is incredible spiritual thinking.
I am following close behind, my Brother. I am so glad to have discovered You and your Vision. I have downloaded a hard copy of this to use in my classes at the OsherLifelongLearningInstitute for seniors at Furman University in Greenville. Of course with all do credit to You. I am a volunteer Instructor – and Ursula is the source of my renewed faith is Religious Naturalism. I was feeling like the loan ranger.
I was drawn into this society of thinkers by Ursula Goodenough who reviewed my new book, Wisdom for a New Era: Balancing Nature, Science, and Belief and personally emailed me – stating that we “share a deep affinity in our concept of the cosmos”.
Now I must read your Rumination.
Most Gratefully Yours – actually Fraternally yours,
I have spoken with several other scientists who have had experiences like this, but it’s rare to find them described in the modern scientific literature. I wonder if that doesn’t contribute to the frequent sense that we scientists are heartless and our work creates barriers, not connections. Thanks for being such pioneer in restoring awe into the vocabulary of science!
Excellent ideas here…Thanks for posting. Ben mentions “Religious Naturalism”…nice term and concept…For myself, the closest I have seen to that concept lies in Lao-Tze’s “Tao Te Ching”, written some 2,500 years ago. Cheers!
Dear John, my life is enriched by your sharing. Thank you!
I’m glad, Jerene. Mine, in turn, is enriched by trying to offer pictures and words that convey both feelings and understandings at the same time. It’s a challenge, but the rewards are great!
All our relations, indeed! Yes, I experience a sense of sisterhood/brotherhood when I am in a forest … this is so palpable when in the presence of some of the giant trees. Brought me to tears when in Sequoia National Forest! :o)
I also feel a kindred spirit with trees. Part of that is staying in one place long enough to plant a sprouted maple seed that I found while cleaning out a gutter and then watching it grow into a giant with a 50′ canopy and realizing that it had to be taken down because the core was rotten. Most people measure the passage of time by watching the growth of children and grandchildren. I have been given trees. I have planted hundreds and feel myself in all of them.
Oh yeah, great sharing Johnny….I use the trees very often for support and guidance. As you describe we are so similar in our basic nature with the trees and with all plants and animals. The trees have a neural network and we do also. So why can we not communicate with them just as we can “feel” the energy and emotions of others without speaking, we can feel the energy and Being-ness of our tall friends.
Reminds me of the movie Avatar where the lead biologist talks about the trees connecting with each other and the Navi connecting with them. The Navi actually connected with their ancestors and the Nature Spirits through the trees.
Sounds like you were connected to them in your walk many years ago and your body retains that emotional memory of the wondrous experience. And through our 6 senses we can make that communication a constant in our lives.
Thanks, Chris. I think we have to be careful about how we describe our similarities to and differences from plants. Yes, plants can store information and at least some plants have electrical signaling systems, but to assert that they have nervous systems anything like ours would be doing an injustice to the facts of biology. In fact, I believe that it would actually be doing an injustice to plants, because it would fail to acknowledge the profound ways in which they are their own kinds of organisms, different from animals despite the underlying similarities. You might enjoy the very fine book “What a Plant Knows” by Daniel Chamovitz that deals extensively with these questions.
As for my own experience, I totally agree with you that I retain an emotional memory of the sense of kinship I felt so many years ago. I’d even go further – it is not just a memory, it is an ongoing feeling that I am privileged to have and to nurture.
Beautiful dad! A powerful reminder of something that feels like an essential truth – must be why it feels good to hug a big strong tree!
Thank you, Sweetheart. I’m glad it spoke to you.
John, i’ve Signed up for your blog. Does it have a scheduled appearance?
Yes it does. I try to post the first Sunday morning of every month and only miss occasionally. As a subscriber you will get a very brief e-mail notification whenever a new post goes up. The next one is due on Sunday, June 3rd.
It was a pleasure to have met you on the trail at Elm Creek. Thank you for letting me in on your blog and for sharing your insights on nature with others. I agree with you that being in nature can be the source of both scientific discovery and spiritual inspiration. I’ve been coming to Elm Creek for 35 years, but still learn something each time I’m there. BTW, I mentioned my brother but forgot to add that he got his scientific start at an NSF Biology program for high schoolers at the University of Washington back in 1972.
It is amazing to me how many fine connections get made through conversations! On just one day I met two people with a link to UW Biology, you in the woods and another on the floating bridge across the pond. I arrived at the UW in 1969, so your brother’s participation in the high school program took place when I was already there.