Face to face with the trees

In little over two weeks, the view from my front porch has changed radically as leaves come out on the trees. The house sits at the edge of a large lawn/meadow/barnyard opening; the porch faces the edge of the woods some fifty feet away. When the leaves are down, I can see up to the top of the low rise we call Laurel Ridge, a couple hundred yards away through the woods. Only the solid mountain laurel understory remains green all year round, and the low winter sun catching an entire hillside of waxy laurel leaves, especially with a snowpack to provide contrast, is a sight to savor. Tree trunks in winter evoke a crowd in freeze-frame; I have only to step down from the porch and walk a few dozen paces to join their vigil. For those six months of the year, I can sit on my porch and feel the smallness of the mountain, the closeness of the sky.

Now, I face an ever more solid wall of green. The last few peeks of sky below the top of this wall will disappear in another day or two. The wintertime impression of limitless space has given way to a feeling of fertile and profuse mystery, veils behind veils.

Ever since I was a kid, I have been able to see faces in the trunks and foliage of trees. The crown of the tallest white pine tree off to the east always reminds me of a long-chinned, long-nosed crone. But with the great deciduous leaf-out, the anthropomorphic forms and faces proliferate. One glimpses them especially at dawn or dusk, an effect aided not merely by the dim light but by the profusion of birdsong at those times. The elaborate blending of ethereal thrush notes, the catbird’s jazz scatting, the oriole’s brassy reveille and many others, along with the profusion of new scents (now the lilac and cypress spurge in my yard; in a few weeks the dame’s rocket) – somehow the synaesthesia helps trigger this intimation of extra presence right at the edge of perception.

I hasten to add that this is without the aid of artificial stimulants, except on very rare occasions. My willingness to admit this peculiar habit of mine is sparked by a study of American Indian tree carving, Faces in the Forest, by Michael D. Blackstock (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001). I had known that some First Nations possessed arborographic traditions, but I hadn’t realized what a wide swath of territory this took in: from the coastal forests of British Columbia clear across to the eastern woodlands. The Iroquois medicine society known in English as the False Faces centered on the power of very beautiful, individually unique masks that were carved directly into the trunks of living trees, and subsequently removed for ceremonial use. The False Face Society’s etiological myth makes it clear that the mask carvers were trying to borrow the spirits of the trees themselves. That is to say, the masks weren’t intended merely to represent other beings – they were the beings they represented. Blackstock gives a version of the origin story collected by Arthur C. Parker (Seneca Myths and Folktales, 1923):

“Unfolding from the trunk of the basswood, the great face stared out at the spellbound hunter and opening wide its protruding lips began to speak. He told of his wonderful eyesight, his blazing eyes could see behind the moon and stars. His power could summon the storms or push aside the clouds for the sunshine. He knew all the virtues of roots and herbs, he knew all the diseases and knew how to apply the remedies of herbs and roots. He was familiar with all the poisons and could send them through the air and cure the sick. He could breathe health or sickness. His power was mighty and could bring luck in battles. Evil and poison and death fled when he looked, and good health and life came in its stead. He told of the basswood and said that its soft wood was filled with medicine and life. It contained the life of the wind and the life of the sunshine, and thus being good, was the wood for the false-faces that the hunter must carve.

“Long the hunter listened to the giant false-face and then he wandered far into the forest until the trees began to speak. Then he knew that there were trees there in which were the spirits of the beings of which he had dreamed and that the Genonsgwa was speaking. He knew that now his task of carving must begin and that the dream-beings, the voices, the birds and the animals that he saw must be represented in the basswood masks that he must make.”

If this all sounds a bit familiar, I suggest that may be due to reading The Lord of the Rings one too many times! But of course Tolkien’s description of the Ents drew upon ancient Eurasian traditions not so different from those of Native North America. In fact, common themes crop up in arboreal myths the world over, which implies to me a phenomenological basis. (Notice how, in using this fancy terminology, I can completely side-step the question of whether that basis should be sought in human psychology, in “reality,” or in some combination of the two.) I explored the diverse meanings of trees in some detail a while back, in an essay called Notes from an Anthropologist of Trees. My ruminations there were born from the intuition that many of our public monuments are not so much phallic as they are arborescent, stemming from an age-old and deeply felt homology between the trunk of the tree and the heroic human torso.

This is not to deny that the phallus occupies a strong role in the male and female imagination, as well; I simply don’t feel that phallic images are primary. To assert that they are, I believe, is to indulge in a post-pubescent, pre-adult power fantasy. The taming and rechanneling of this fantasy would seem to be one of the major goals of initiation ceremonies and rite-of-passage ordeals the world over. Although even to suggest that this fantasy is something to be tamed and rechanneled implies primacy, and I’m not sure how many cultures really believe that adolescent behavior is somehow primary or “natural” in our sense of the word. In fact, a great many peoples hold up as their cultural ideal the figure of the Elder, who simultaneously embodies the deathless wisdom of the ancestors and the direct gaze and innocence of the young child.

Western concepts of wild/natural vs. tame/civilized emphasize the repression of part of the self – rather than, say, the preferential cultivation of one part without disrespect toward other aspects. (I have to really hunt for the words to say this, so deeply ingrained is the habit of looking at life as a zero-sum game.) Why cut down the whole tree if all one needs for the mask is one small portion? Art (or, more broadly, technology) can have a symbiotic rather than a parasitic relationship with Nature. If Native Americans have no concept of the wild, it may be because they cannot comprehend the desire to impose one’s will upon Nature in the first place.

Such, at any rate, is the drift of my thoughts this fine morning as I watch the light grow, marveling at the number of variations on the theme of green. In a few weeks, washed by air-borne chemicals both natural and unnatural, the leaves will darken into a more uniform monotone. From my front porch I’ll still be close enough to distinguish one tree’s foliage from another by the shape and arrangement of the leaves – although of course each individual is familiar to me from long acquaintance. As dawn turns to day, the trees at the woods’ edge gradually coalesce, becoming ever more circumscribed and distinct. I imagine that if Sigmund Freud were here with me, sitting in the other plastic stack chair, he would listen to my ramblings about arborescent images and cultural ideals with a faint smile, then say: “But sometimes, you know, a tree is just a tree!”

CROSS-REFERENCES: Mask and pageant and Divining the wild

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