Changes in response to Changes

*originally posted at This Earth, June 21/2012

Nature is change. All life comes from change and decay. An old environmental science professor of mine said the study of the world is the study of changes in response to changes. Cycling and recycling. Nutrient cycles and water cycles. Even the rocks have cycles and change from one form into another. Shifting tectonic plates produce mountains. Time and friction reduce mountains. Shifting and moving and changing. The very opposite of eternal. Changes responding to changes. This process of decay and reproduction represents the preferred location for humanity’s search for the absolute, the eternal, God, god, gods. This is our perspective. Our paradox of seeking the sacred: in constant change rests our eternity. What should we do with this? How doe we survive when even our temporal desires for permanence are best embodied in constant change?

Do you believe in things that are sacred and holy, that places and things and people can have about them the thing that some call sacred? These are words whose carrying capacity remains too small to hold sufficient meaning. They exist beyond definition. The world does not hold a common understanding of these words, holy, sacred, but if it did it would probably include some notion of the eternal, and that eternity would probably be represented, at times, in the natural world. Nature by definition changes. Our sacred is defined by change; we worship what will not last. This is called a paradox. When you find one, you are likely honing in on holy.

Yesterday morning I spent my time with holy objects. They were trees somewhere deep in Lolo National Forest. Ponderosa Pine. It was not just the pine, of course, but the sun’s perfect light on the needles and the runs of sap and the illumination of hanging air particulate. The moment was more than you expect, if you ever expect such things. Great Beasts of trees, old and rich in time. Lighted and moving at intervals of sun through the swaying canopy; these are the kinds of trees that birth tree-spirits. Do you know tree-spirits? I don’t. But I love the word. Tree-Spirit. If any trees on this planet have spirits, a life and individual anima that holds something sacred, it is these Ponderosa Pine on this day. So there I stood, yesterday, underneath all this in a small clearing of Ponderosa Pine, worshipping the tree-spirits of some sacred trees.

           A forest like Lolo makes it relatively easy to write such things. These topics are rare in daily conversation. Solitude makes for such revelations; writers have always said as much. But the poet of least loneliness, Walt Whitman, wrote: “I hear and behold God in the every object, yet I understand God not in the least.” I couldn’t agree more. Except, there is no god. So what’s the deal with my tree-spirits? Another paradox.

In the face of such a paradox one faces several choices. I could place God outside of nature entirely and into a different realm, like heaven or prosperity. I might simply remove God. And not just God, but the notion of the sacred from nature, and leave the earth and its systems as text to be studied. In between these are as many options as you can count. One of them is nature worship, which, if I’m honest with my experience, happened in those trees. I’m not a worshiper of nature in the Pagan or Wiccan sense of the word. I don’t even know what those words mean. But I believe in things that humans just can’t understand, and those things are what I call sacred, and when we see them, we ignore them at our peril. They are worthy of our attention.

About eighty-five years ago, Charles Frazier wrote all about this in The Golden Bough. “In the religious history of the Aryan race inEurope,” Frazier begins his chapter on the topic, “the worship of trees has played an important part. Nothing could be more natural.” In more detail than one could ever seek, Frazier reveals the different forms of European tree worship and the necessity of respecting the tree-spirits and the laws surrounding their protection. “How serious that worship was in former times may be gathered from the ferocious penalty appointed by the old German laws for such as dared to peel the bark of a standing tree. The culprit’s navel was to be cut out and nailed to the part of the tree which he had peeled, and he was to be driven round and around the tree till all his guts were wound about its trunk.” Germans. For Frazier such practices, even when they do not lead to evisceration, are the practices of savages. For the savage believes that trees and plants “have souls like their own, and he treats them accordingly.”

Our paradox is not in Frazier. He knows much about our history as worshippers of the non-human, but he sees only the folly of such action. I see no folly, nor did those who practiced the savagery of such belief. We see sacred animate souls, at least at one point we thought we did. It may be revealed only occasionally, as the Ponderosa Pine revealed to me but this once. But if it’s possible once the problem becomes that it is always possible.

We are deep in the waters here. Here’s the problem. I don’t believe in God, though I haven’t completely ruled out god. I certainly do not worship trees. The only tree icon that I have lasts about 3 weeks around December. But in the solitude of the forest, I believe tree-spirits accompany me. The souls of these old trees, much older than me and my family, are revealed in those times. Here at my computer another paradox comes forth. I am a logical person—who believes in tree-spirits. The thing is, this doesn’t bother me. In fact I treasure it. Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. Thanks again, Walt Whitman.

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