a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
So imagine this: I am sixteen or seventeen years old, and I have been seeing an older man for over a year, a man who is often sexually abusive and coercive. I am walking away one evening from the house where he lives on a suburban street, and I am stiff and sore. I know I am trapped, because though I want to leave him, he has made me feel that he is the only man, the only person who will ever love me. I still hope that if I can make him love me enough, one day he might stop.
When I am being hurt, I think of myself as becoming wood, becoming a tree. I’m not the first woman to feel this way. This was confirmed for me when I read in Alice Walker’s defiant novel The Color Purple how the women there too described their reaction on suffering pain as turning to wood.
It is no coincidence either that all those women pursued in Ovid turn into trees, reeds, or plants. In the myths, it is a kind of escape. Chased by Apollo, Daphne finds herself trapped, and her transformation is tinged with horror. ‘Her feet benumb’d and fastened to the ground,’ she grows a ‘filmy’ and protective rind, as her arms turn to branches. Ovid is not a totally sympathetic narrator; he tells us salaciously that Daphne cannot hide ‘the smoothness of her skin,’ and describes Apollo kissing it. She is only half-transformed. Becoming wood is a frail defense for a person being harmed. Becoming the tree is not a true escape then, because even while the transformation to a laurel makes Daphne strange and non-human, she is still vulnerable to attack.
I pass through an alley and come out onto a wide green lawn. I stop under a tree, and across the grass is the shape of turrets, the castle that crowns the naval of the town where I grew up. I am standing under an oak tree, pulling my denim jacket closed around me, because a breeze has started blowing from the west. The canopy of the oak is alive with leaves blinking and trembling.
Would you believe me if I told you that every tree sings a particular song when the wind blows through it? That day the oak is singing but not to me especially. We enjoy humanizing nature, framing it as a friend or family. Maybe it began in the nineteenth century with Darwin who described the behaviors of animals and insects in peculiarly human terms. Writing for The Guardian about how nature healed her alcohol addiction, Lucy Jones uses a maternal image of nursing: “I rested in her care for a while.” But nature is not our mother, is not human even, and it is not there simply to be used by us as some kind of alternative therapy or rehab. “Nature” does not even exist as a separate entity from human beings. And, no, the oak tree that day is not singing for me, or to me. Despite that, I am moved by it, and the wind moves sensuously through my hair, over my lips and cheeks, just as it moves the slender branches and murmuring leaves.
I am suffering that day. I am physically hurting, but I am also broken by the repetition of what happens when this man gets me alone, when I make myself quiet and small and faraway. What happens in the house makes me alert, watchful, skittish perhaps, my body tense with the trauma of what occurs over and over again.
Trees are vulnerable too, and they are treated with same carelessness as women. Both are seen as disposable. Here in Ohio, I live on the outskirts of Columbus, a city where the building and expansion is busting out into the countryside. One day, I am driving the kids out to a lake through a suburb that was once a lonely road with just one tackle and bait store. Turning a corner, we come upon a devastating scene. Row upon row of ancient trees have been cut down, their stumps poke up, trunks left where they fell, abandoned. The fallen wood looks black under a grey sky, and in the midst, a nicely painted red barn sits unexpected, comic, a barn once was shaded by the foliage now stripped. I wonder, how could someone look at this and not be moved?
But perhaps lack of empathy is precisely the problem, not only for nature but for women. Because some human beings, especially privileged ones, have a hard time projecting themselves into the world around them. Or worse still, with the sociopaths in our midst, there is a terrible kind of empathy where an aggressor enjoys inflicting damage, delights precisely in understanding the harm they are doing to people, or to creatures, or even gets off on it.
Perhaps what is most precious is not only the ability to empathize, but the ability to actively take joy in what is alive around us. This might be what heals us: when we can feel a sense of our own unimportance in relation to other people and creatures and things.
Like that day when I stand under the oak tree as a teenager, feeling my wounds sharply. But something about the tree changes that, because the oak is alive. The wind sings through it. The leaves are alive, the trunk is alive, the roots are alive, and the earth is alive, and so, even I am alive and feeling the shuddering world. Somehow this moment makes me stronger, and of course eventually I leave that man.
Trees persist despite the carelessness of humans, despite the assumption that nothing is as important as our appetites, and that nature must bend to our will. All of a sudden though, people are waking up and realizing that the absence of trees, the sterilization of nature around them is making them sick. Lucy Jones, again, writes with surprise that her alcohol addiction was cured by walks at a local marsh in London. Her argument is that we need to maintain and keep the natural world alive because human beings need it, but isn’t this just another dead end?
Because though the oak tree that I stood under offered healing in that moment, that restoration was not its reason for being. It is abusive to think about creatures and things that way, mirroring the abuser of women, who sees their lover as solely existing as a lever for their own desires and wants, without any needs of their own. It is not uncommon though, so in the nasty, little book (supposedly for children), The Giving Tree, Shel Silverstein directly overlaps the woman and tree as objects that must simply give up everything they have until nothing remains. But where does that leave us?
Because if creatures and natural objects can heal us, it is not in a sanitized, manicured version of “Nature.” When the oak tree strikes me with its power, it is not because I see it as an all-sacrificing mother, not some kind of egotistical idea that the tree is there for me to heal me. When I experience healing, it is because of the tree’s strangeness, because of how eerie and nonhuman it seems as the wind blows through it. It is healing because I realize how little I know of it, and the tree gives me this just by being alive.
Is this an answer to trauma? The living ecologies around us? And if they do heal us, is it not because they resemble human care but precisely because they couldn’t care less about us? Couldn’t it be that we are removed from trauma by what is strange and eerie about nature? By how removed it is from constraints, from sanitized human environments, from the perverse dysfunctions of the human world where men abuse and kill women with sad regularity?
I have gone back to this moment again and again: just a sixteen-year-old girl standing under an oak tree, clutching her jacket around her. It wouldn’t look like much to an observer, and I have struggled to understand its significance myself. But I know how important it was as one of a series of moments that led me at last to break away from my abuser, to the day when I set myself free.
And now we find ourselves in a moment on the edge of catastrophe, because white Western politicians mirror my abuser. Either they fail to empathize with people, creatures, and things, or they actually take pleasure in destroying them. It is up to us to feel the shuddering world, to protect it, because the trees are caught in their roots and bark, caught like Daphne in her laurel form, caught by the whims of privileged men. It is possible for us to set ourselves free.