the truth about trees
March 2, 2010
Words are found objects, flying objects, sent your way, filling your crib, by mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, sounds that swirl and echo in your skull and bones, charged but unidentified, meaning only what you feel when you hear them, safety, warmth, fear, alarm, okayness, “I’m okay,” or, “it’s okay” since babies don’t have a proper I for a while (or so they say). Mama, baby. Do you need a new diaper? Yes. Yes. Cooing and nonsense syllables. Are you a happy baby? Are you ready for a nap? Do you need some milk? Sounds, noise, to the infant while all that matters is the milk, the touch, the quiet, the warmth, not metaphorical warmth but body-body warmth, not the word warmth, or the idea, but the heat of the holder, mama, sister, father. The thing itself, the act, the gesture, not the word, or the thought, nor thoughts about the words. No I, not yet, only presence, and the gifts of presence, vibration, smell, pure abstract shifting sounds and light, and the nipple, the feel of it in the mouth, and what comes out of it, the warm flow of milk, of life itself.
But the words keep swirling, keep coming at you, those shifting sounds drop and thud around the crib, the blanket, the floor, your ears, until you find one in your mouth, in your lips, your throat, vibrating in your skull, this sound, mama, or dada, and so it goes, year in year out, finding more, making more, finding them in your mind (and finding your mind) your heart (and finding your heart), finding lips and hands and tree and spoon and house. Finding meaning, relation, correlation, connection: the thing and its label, the feeling and the word for the feeling, the idea and its name. The flying unidentified objects finding, creating, identity, enter and merge and emerge, become inseparable, essential, indelible, the handles by which we grasp the turning world, the lenses through which we see, the tools with which we find ourselves, name ourselves, name each other and every thing.
The words become flesh. They become us. We become them. Inextricable, essential, undoable. Truth. Justice. The American way. The earth. Superman. Underdog. Grapes of wrath. The novel. The play. The poem. The sermon. The rabble and the rousing demagogue. The rabbi. Love. Self. Other. Words define us as we define them. Control and limit us even as we push them, squeeze them, use them to describe the indescribable, imagine the unimaginable. These syllables. These things we find in our mouths, our heads, our ears. Sounds that have been hovering, recycling for thousands or tens of thousands of years, passed from person to person, parent to child, changed, inflected, infected, flipped and reversed, chopped, and recombined, new words formed from pieces of old ones.
New words for new realities. New realities. Are they new because we can say they are? Is newness itself a figment of the word “new”? Are we inventing things or merely discovering them? What is reality, really? How can there be a word for what simply is? Or a word for what isn’t? Words that have no thing attached, labels for which there is no object, except hope, or yearning, or longing? Infinity. For example. Or God. Words that merely point, like fingers to a moon that is not there, and yet galvanize and organize and shape entire worlds. The devil, the demon, the god in the fire, in the sky, in the rain. The god in the grove of trees.
Now there’s a word/sound that’s traveled, tree. An ancient word with an ancient meaning, yes, tree, that firm hard woody thing that grows out of the ground. Firm and strong, unyielding. And then the word shifts, becomes the idea of unyielding, of perfect reliability, of permanence, of promise-keeping. Tree shifts to trust, to troth, to betroth, to making a lasting commitment, and then becomes truth itself, the deep values and principles we consider to be essential to our very nature. All from a random syllable describing an ancient oak, or pine, in old Europe somewhere, before it was called Europe. Tree, truth, trust, the beloved betrothed. One reality or several?
And is there some new appropriation we can effect? Some new truth to grasp, to commit to? About ourselves and the world and the trees, which despite our ideas are not really unyielding, not permanent at all, but crashing to the ground throughout the world, denuding the planet, changing the equation, forcing on us frightening words that nonetheless refer to real things. Extinction. Catastrophe (Greek, meaning literally down-stroke, as with a sword). Warming. A warming that kills. Can we face the possibility of our own impermanence? Of our own stupidity, venality? Can we clean up our language? Make some new commitments, new betrothals? Use these syllables in a way that will heal and rescue and ground us, words that will inspire and galvanize us to find a new way of existing, of co-existing, on this beautiful but estranged, increasingly estranged, planet?