I Did Not Make This Tree
Merriam Webster definition ~formal : honor or respect that is felt for or shown to (someone or something)
: honor or respect felt or shown : DEFERENCE, especially : profound adoring awed respect
“Reverence is the recognition of something greater than the self — something that is beyond human creation or control, that transcends full human understanding” (Paul Woodruff, classical philosopher, quoted in An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor, 21).
“Reverence stands in awe of something — something that dwarfs the self, that allows human veins to sense the full extent of our limits — so that we can see one another more reverently as well” (Barbara Brown Taylor, 21).
Lacking the centuries of tradition so many other countries have, America has been pre-dispositioned to be short on reverence. Our architecture is not ancient. As a people so often we have valued the new, the flashy, and the transient. We have a throw-away society. And while we could have learned reverence from America’s indigenous peoples, we chose instead to all but annihilate their cultures, cultures deeply infused with reverence for nature, for elders, for life. Today, our American culture is hemorrhaging reverence. Social media delivers a sense that barriers have been removed. We now can respond to celebrities (America’s dubious brand of royalty) directly on their social media accounts, and sometimes we even receive back responses or re-tweets from well-known and admired people with whom we never would have crossed paths or had the gumption to address directly. The distance we used to perceive between the famous and powerful or between our heroes and ourselves is shrinking, and so too is the respect offered to all. Snarky and irreverent humor has replaced innocent, now-dubbed “cheesy” humor. Don’t get me wrong; I often enjoy snarky humor myself, but ultimately all of this is producing a general atmosphere in which “nothing is sacred.” In other words, precious little is revered. We seldom pause long enough to feel awe. We allow too little silence to feel the reverence that arises from a stilled and quieted soul.
The one place so many of us still turn when we want to experience a sense of reverence is nature. When I need an ample dose of reverence, I first seek out either the sky or the presence of trees. For a book that will transport you into a mindset of wonder, check out The Lost Words. If you have not heard of The Lost Words project, it is worth exploring. Following the release of the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary which omitted many words for the natural world and added words relating to technology like “broadband,” “celebrity” and “voicemail,” The Lost Words project was conceived. The Lost Words official website describes how naturalist and author Robert Macfarlane and artist Jackie Morris teamed up to create The Lost Words book and how this joint project inspired a greater movement:
“The book began as a response to the removal of everyday nature words — among them “acorn”, “bluebell”, “kingfisher” and “wren” — from a widely used children’s dictionary, because those words were not being used enough by children to merit inclusion. But The Lost Words then grew to become a much broader protest at the loss of the natural world around us, as well as a celebration of the creatures and plants with which we share our lives, in all their wonderful, characterful glory.”
“Since The Lost Words’ publication in October 2017, this book has had a transformative effect on all who have come in contact with it. Described as a ‘cultural phenomenon’ in The Guardian, it has become a huge bestseller, has taken root in thousands of schools across Britain, been widely acclaimed as an instant classic, won numerous prizes, and inspired many creative thinkers, young and old. It was shortlisted in 2017 as one of Britain’s favourite books of all time on the natural world…(The Lost Words.org).”
In their breathtakingly beautiful book, Macfarlane designed acrostic poems or “spells” to conjure the lost words back into our language, and Morris painted sublime illustrations to accompany each poem. Why the commitment to celebrate these words removed from a children’s dictionary? Why did the discovery of these words’ removal prompt an entire movement that still has not burned out? I suspect it has to do with a recognition that words matter, that words have power. Words are a form of cultural currency. If we do not have the language for a natural object, how can we describe it? How can we use it in daily speech, much less in poetry or in literature? The book includes poems and illustrations for “bramble,” “heron,” “willow,” and “otter,” among many others. If I see a willow but do not know the word for it, can I easily write a poem about it? The task becomes much harder, and without the word for that particular tree, the likelihood that I will reference it either in speech or in writing is small. Following the publication of The Lost Words book, two nourishing albums have been produced called “Spell Songs” and “Spell Songs II,” containing soulful, folk songs from a variety of artists and meant to celebrate each “lost word.” There are now Lost Words puzzles, postcards, a companion Lost Spells book, and even a beautiful, gentle game. Clearly, The Lost Words project struck a chord with nature-lovers and lovers of language and continues to, as the second Spell Songs album has only just been released.
One of the poems in The Lost Words stunningly captures a reason why trees, in particular, are such a rich source of reverence. The poem is entitled “Conker,” which is a British term used for a horse chestnut. This sophisticated acrostic poem employs multiple voices: that of a person trying to implore human beings to “manufacture” a conker and, in italics, the incredulous voices of those being asked to do so. To see the poem as it appears in the book, with Morris’ illustration beside it, click here. To listen to the poem beautifully read aloud, listen here.
Cabinet-maker, could you craft me a conker?
Oil its wood, burnish its veneer, set it glowing
Never. Not a chance. No hope at all.
King, then, could you command me a conker?
Compel its green spikes to grow, its white plush
to thicken? Impossible. Impractical. Inconceivable.
Engineer, surely you could design me a conker?
Refine its form, mill its curves and edges?
Manufacture me that magic casket?
Unfeasible. Unworkable. Unimaginable.
Realize this (said the Cabinet-maker, the King and
the Engineer together), conker cannot be made,
however you ask it, whatever word or tool you use,
regardless of decree. Only one thing can conjure
conker — and that thing is tree.
“Only one thing can conjure conker — and that thing is tree.” What a catalyst for reverence: the recognition that we did not make the smooth, warm “casket” of a conker, or the magnificent tree from which it derives, and we never could. Author and priest Barbara Brown Taylor explains:
“A Native American elder I know says that he begins teaching people reverence by steering them over to the nearest tree.
‘Do you know that you didn’t make this tree?’ he asks them. If they say yes, then he knows that they are on their way” (An Altar in the World, 21).
To reconnect with reverence in this hectic, irreverent society, requires only that we slow long enough to pay attention. We can choose the nearest tree for our study in reverence, and it will not disappoint. Consider its longevity, all the human drama it outlives. Consider the miracle of its existence and its persistence through drought, through record-breaking storms. The majesty of its artistry: the veins in each leaf, the funny texture of its bark. And meditate on how we now understand that trees communicate with each other. To read about how trees talk with each other and rely upon a whole network of tree relationships to thrive and reach grand stature, read Richard Grant’s 2018 Smithsonian article, “Do Trees Talk to Each Other?” Grant shares what he learns from German author and forester Peter Wohlleben, who has made a life out of the care and study of trees. Or, listen to this May 2021 NPR interview with forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, as she discusses the concept of the “Mother Tree” and explains how “trees are ‘social creatures’ that communicate with each other in cooperative ways that hold lessons for humans, too.” The only way anyone has learned these reverence-provoking truths about trees has been through slow, exquisite attention. How marvelous that when we become ever so slightly conscious of our great need to channel reverence, we have only to turn to the nearest tree, the tree that has been there all along, and that, chances are, will remain there long after our own lives are over.
Melissa Williams blogs about literature, nature, and transcendence at oftheblueflower.com. The Blue Flower also has a Facebook Group that we hope you will join. There we discuss the topics covered in this blog, share inspiration and photos, and build a community with a mutual appreciation for literature, beauty, art, nature, spirituality, and transcendence. You can also follow The Blue Flower on Twitter @OfTheBlueFlower and on Instagram at of_the_blue_flower.