The Virtue of Trees I
Bill Long 8/12/07
Dendrological Lessons for Life
I have been staying in Palo Alto, CA for the past few days to celebrate a family reunion. Family reunions may be defined as gatherings you feel you should have had with loved ones for many years but, after you have them, you realize why it wasn't so bad that you waited so long. In order to maximize my visit, however, I printed off seven guided tree tours from the Stanford University web site as well as about a dozen urban tree hikes put out by canopy.org, a Palo Alto tree-loving group. I knew I would have time for some hikes. Since the August weather in Palo Alto probably is superior to the typical day in heaven, it invites you to spend hours and hours out in the sun and shade, meeting people and looking at trees and other objects. I love to hike because you see life from a completely different perspective if you spend most of your time on foot.
The first thing I noticed when I was on foot is that people galore tend to stop me and ask directions. I guess I have a friendly face; perhaps the color of my hair gives the impression that I know more than I do, but invariably all kinds of people ask me for directions to various places. Then, I noticed also that the people on foot are those who in general don't use English as their first language. Some of them are young families taking their Sunday walk or groups of people going to special events. Most of them have one family member doing graduate work at Stanford. The other groups on foot are Asians, who always seem to be attending weddings or taking pictures of each other in front of Rodin sculptures or the Memorial Chapel or some other significant site.
By the way, it struck me that if there is any state in the union where people ought to support the "English as official language of the USA" movement it is CA. After all, CA is now a "majority-minority" culture, with no ethnic group having a majority of the population now. Within 25 years, CA is supposed to have a majority Hispanic population. It may be that a majority of people in CA won't be able to speak English very well. Well, no one seems to be bothered about the issue here. Why not? Because everyone really knows that even though you hear a symphony of languages all around you, that the agenda here is set by the English-speaking people. The University conducts its classes in English (except, of course, if you are learning Malay or Tagalog, or something like that), English is the international language of scholarly discourse in almost every field, and it is clear to everyone that English anchors what goes on around here. So, the issue is a non-issue, in this state with the highest "non-English speaking" population. I hope the issue dies out nationally. It is nothing but a cheap way for some politicians to score political points.
Oh, Back to the Trees
So, even though I was here for a reunion, I am really here for the trees. I have only been studying trees three months, but already they have taught me many lessons of life. Let me tell you a few of them now, and then tell you about some walks I took in the next essay.
The first lesson I have learned is that studying trees forces you to slow down in life. In this regard it is a better way to slow down than having a heart attack. Let me clarify what I mean. I have no plans to "slow down" in life, if that means that I cut back on work or thinking or enjoyment or intimacy or fun. But by pursuing an understanding of trees, you simply have to stop and look at them. You can't breeze by them anymore. They have a sort of claim on your life. They say, "Stop and look at me. Consider my leaves. Look at the bark. See my fruit. Look at my shape. See how the wind affects me. Stay awhile under my shade."
When I was in Santa Fe a few months ago, I visited the Georgia O'Keeffe museum. She is always appreciated for her flower paintings. One of her comments on her paintings stayed with me. She said that she could only do her work if she stopped, looked, and studied the flowers. She wondered why people just didn't look at them, since there were so many lessons for life in the simple petal of a flower. She was trying to imitate the beauty of nature in her paintings, and she did it very well. But she had to stop and listen.
When you stop and listen to trees, you begin to find that you see life differently. The first way this happens is you all of a sudden have a new community of people you are talking with. The next essay tells a little about these people.