Memories of Trees

Paul Goettlich 16 Apr 2023

My visual memories are purposefully initiated by my subconscious, as if recorded by a camera. There are many of these images, but they are quite finite and some leave more powerful, lasting impressions. The scent of Douglas fir evokes some of those images as far back as 1952 when my father assembled my model train set on a sheet of plywood in our basement. And through that, I am able to see the area of the basement around the train set. Walking trough a grove of Douglas fir and inhaling that scent, I am immediately placed back in time with a stream of linked historical thoughts.

It’s no simple thing to see. Sunlight reflects off an object and is inverted as it enters one’s eyes. After which the mind uprights it again. The colours witnessed are highly dependent on the angle of the sun, atmospheric gaseous content and impurities such as dust, smoke, clouds. But also, the physical condition of our eyes, and how they perceive colours and shapes. My right eye is better than my left eye. Objects appear more vertical or taller in shape in my right one and more horizontal, squat in the left. Lines are more defined in the right one, denser and darker outlines. I don’t notice that normally with both eyes open.

The experience of recording a memory is spontaneous. It’s realized after the intentionally self-instigated act by my subconscious. While holding my attention on a particularly joyful image such as a tree, my inner voice tells me “This Has Been Recorded.” And from that moment on, it can be recalled accurately. I’ve never until this instant tried recalling many consecutively as a slideshow. But I rather think that won’t work as it seems disrespectful to each precious memory. Their power resides in that instance, possibly recorded many years ago, even decades.

I have both still and moving memories. All are colour, except memories of my black-and-white photography, which forces my memories of those places into black-and-white. The Manhattan subway becomes black and white. And in dreams of the subway, it’s in black-and-white. Trees remain colour until the sunlight is totally gone. But interesting shades appear as the last sunlight fades into deeper, oddly glowing shades until gone.

NYC subway train in motion 1968 by Paul Goettlich

I’d watch one favourite tree out the open door on a hot summer afternoon frequently for minutes – sometimes 30 to 60 minutes, falling asleep in the bedroom chair after a hard day’s work. Upon waking, it would appear to be different, attributable to the later time of day, as well as changes in temperature and light. It was a 50-year-old twin maple that probably grew as a scion of an older maple. Its two big trunks formed a ‘V’ at the ground, but appeared separate, at least above ground. Possibly it started as one and split. Or perhaps they began separately, and cojoined during growth. Both were quite healthy.

With leaves in full bloom, they appeared as one very high and wide vital organism from a distance. They moved as a solitary dancer in the wind, but sway back-and-forth like murmurations of thousands of starling birds, responding to gusts and lulls in the wind. At times, the leaves turned to show their bottoms in unison, as if welcoming the rain.

Did you know that it’s a collective?

Down through their roots, trees are in contact with those around them. I hope they sensed my kind thoughts about them and the joy they provided for me. I spoke to the twin Maple, and quite often placed both hands on it, believing it could sense me. I gained something from that touch which can only be described as spiritually welcoming.

In high winds, its voice of many thousands of leaves rustled and its branches creaked and rubbed together. All those maple green sails transmitted the wind’s energy through the branches to the main trunk, like a ship’s mast buried deep in the ground and transmitted out by its wide root configuration. In doing so, it moved the nearby ground enough to feel it on the bottom of my feet.

1860 photo showing students and teacher in a one-room schoolhouse built in 1800. These were children of farmers living in the area.

My first home was an old schoolhouse built in 1800 with a loose stone foundation that lacked a footing. The roots of a tall pignut hickory nearby ran under that stone foundation. As the tree swayed during storms, I could feel the corner of the house being lifted a couple inches as I lay in bed. The tree’s moaning transmitted through the roots into the stone foundation and played out on the wood construction like a fine cello. And its nuts fell randomly on the metal roof of the barn throughout the year. I experienced it as if a on a sailing ship on stormy sea. That tree was probably more than 80 years old back then and I worried about it falling on the house. Fifty years later, it’s yet larger and I wonder if the owners have thought about it.

During major wind storms at our farm, the entire forest swayed and howled! We could hear it pop now and then as large branches fell or a large Douglas fir would snap in half. Unless there was an emergency with our water system, or the animals – goats, and chickens – I’d stay indoors for fear of falling branches. It’s not a matter of if but when branches fall during wind storms. I avoided walking in the forest during them. After a storm, there’s what feels like silence until bird song returns with raindrops landing on the leaves becoming the dominant sounds. The maples’ roots grow out to where the rain drips off its outer most leaf tips, as just one of the many things that trees understand.

Another maple that I’d visit was tall had a wide base and stood regally on a large knoll about 100 feet above our house. I have a drawing placing the house due west of it. The ground below the tree was shaded, producing a clearing of other plant life, save for a mushroom, or a few stunted sword ferns. This was a peaceful resting place to visit occasionally.

The tree’s presence inspired calmness and meditation, imparting a feeling of being welcome and relaxed. Once or twice, I felt my father’s presence. He’d passed away decades before and 3000 miles away. It was a shimmering of light and shadow that moved quickly across my awareness, leaving the vestigial reflex goosebumps on me with the electrification of my senses. I softly called out his name, not expecting a response. But he was gone, leaving me with a cascade of welcome memories of him. He was a good person and we bonded on nature, art and the sea.

That I am a scion of my parents has always been obvious to me. Their images are firmly in place in my memories.

Similarly, I’m certain the trees recognize their parents and relatives, as well as all others within their mycorrhizal network consisting of tiny threads of fungal organisms’ connections, individual plants are linked together. In the network, they transfer water, nitrogen, carbon, and other minerals. Many scientists believe tree’s communication is sophisticated, where each molecule is meaningful and different molecules mixed together, convey specific messages. Fossil records indicate that mycorrhizal fungi predate the evolution of vascular plants, about 460 million years ago in the Ordovician period.

In J.R.R. Tolkien‘s novels of middle earth, he created anthropomorphic trees called Ents who walked in middle earth. Taken from old English the word Ent is “giant.” Tolkien saw them as troll-like figures of about 14 feet in height who did everything extremely slowly. He drew much of this theme from ancient myths and folklore. In old Norse cosmology, everything exists around a mighty tree named Yggdrasil. The creation of humans from tree trunks is ancient lure among the Germanic peoples of central Europe and Scandinavia dating from the 6th to the 1st centuries BCE.

Today, scholars such as Suzanne Simard and Peter Wohlleben are quite certain that trees communicate regularly, sending warnings and sharing nutrients albeit at a much slower rate than humans to.

How Trees Talk to Each Other – Suzanne Simard at TEDSummit
Talking To Trees – Peter Wohlleben on TVO interview

Sounds emitted by plants under stress are airborne and informative.
Itzhak Khait, et al. Cell vol.186, ISSUE 7, P1328-1336.e10, March 30, 2023

One such scholar posited that humans have a similar need to communicate. That during times of COVID isolation our great need to communicate caused an enormous increase in Internet use. Therein is a direct comparison to trees communicating through their mycorrhizal net done work. However much similarity there is between tree communication and human communication, tree’s maintain it for mutual benefit while ours is more of a free-for-all. Literally everything about commercial forestry and agriculture is antithetical to the communication and well-being of life in general, breaking the bonds that maintain both nature and human lives — clear-cutting, drenching the land and life on it with herbicides such as Roundup, which is known to last years in the soil and to pollute rivers, lake and ground waters.

There was a large area under and around a tall Sitka spruce tree where I’d collect stinging nettles for morning tea. I could gather enough at one time to supply a year’s worth of tea. The Sitka spruce itself was a beauty to work under. Probably more than 150 years old. The mighty limbs of an old Sitka spruce, about 2-feet across, contained a corkscrew pattern of growth that is quite dense. They look quite literally like a weight lifter’s arm bent at the elbow. To reinforce that point of stress at the bottom of the elbow, it adds layers of additional grain to support the weight of outermost growth during severe wind storms.

A below-grade spring ran nearby, providing moisture for the nettles and the spruce. Several species of birds lived high up in its branches. Crows, ravens, owls, red tail hawks, as well as squirrels and more. My favourite birdsong was that of a Swanson’s thrush. I’d regularly hear and see Barn, Great Horned and Spotted Owls. And I record hours of ravens cawing at me.

It’s been years since I lived in that forest, however I am certain I can recall all my old friends and the intricacies of the terrain they lived in. Each mound and depression, each trail, spring, stream and each soil type exist in my memories to be recalled. While living there, I attempted to leave everything in better condition than when we arrived. It was a difficult task as the previous owner had created many areas where he’d dump unwanted materials. One could dig below the surface randomly and come upon a wad of plastic waste in the form of packaging, mulching, irrigation piping and fencing wire that had been caught kinked and knotted across 100 meters. I’m fairly certain that, over the decade we lived there, I removed most of it if not all. It gave me a sense of accomplishment doing so.

Moon over the river
Moon over the river

Click to see Lots more photos of the area

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