What Do The Trees See, and Teach?
Bill Long 7/23/07
Celebrating an Essay, "The Trees Saw Everything," by Salem Teenager Andrew Kendoll
As those of you who read my essays know, I have been studying trees for the last several weeks. My quest is not simply to identify them but to understand their lives, their gifts to us, their way of teaching us about life. This dawned on me afresh in the last few weeks when I visited two noteworthy trees in Oregon. One was the largest Black Cottonwood in the US (Populus trichocarpa--you just have to have the patience to learn the Latin names..), probably 250 years old, and the other was the former (until a 2006 storm) tallest Sitka Spruce tree in the US (Picea sitchensis). The former is in the Willamette Mission State Park, about 10 miles north of Salem, and the other is along state Highway 26 about five miles East of Cannon Beach, OR.
When you visit the cottonwood, you are directed to a point across a body of water from the tree, where the view is unobstructed but you can't get to it. Eventually I found a trail to the tree and admired it "up close." I recall running my fingers in the deep grooves of the tree and wondering what it must have been like for the tree to have been a sapling in the 1750s, before any European had even visited the area. What did it see when the Native Americans camped in its vicinity? Was it impressed with the Methodists when they came there in 1834 to try to convert the natives to Christianity and American values? How did it oversee the forming of the Oregon provisional government in 1843, statehood in 1859, the rush of people to settle the Oregon country in the next several decades and, finally, the modernization of life in our own day? As I ran my hands deeply into the furrows of the tree, I wanted the tree to teach me what it had seen and felt of the life that had swirled all around it. What does it think now that it is a "celebrity" tree, of sorts?
Back to "Reality"
When these thoughts of trees were in my mind, I happened to notice an article in my local paper which talks about a Salem teen being the first person from Oregon to win a Holocaust essay-writing contest. Andrew Kendoll, recently graduated from McKay HS, wrote an essay entitled "The Trees Saw Everything," which was stimulated by a trip he made to the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany when he was seven years old. His essay was one of ten to win the Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation's 2007 Holocaust Remembrance Project Essay Contest. What is significant about Kendoll's essay for me is the way that his imagination was stimulated by the trees of Dachau. Here is what he says:
"Being only seven years old, I had difficulty articulating all of these overpowering emotions [i.e., the emotions at seeing the machinery of death at Dachau]. Still, as my mother and I walked back towards the barracks of the camp, I gazed up at the very old, mighty trees that stood along either side of our path. I can still remember the chilling feeling I had when I turned to my mom and said, 'Those trees saw everything.' Then, in an uncontrollable release of emotion, I lowered my young head and began to cry."
It was the insightful thought about the trees seeing everything that stayed with Andrew for the intervening decade. As he matured and begn to recognize man's inhumanity to man across the globe, he was brought to return in his mind to that trip to Dachau and the memory of the huge trees. They were his teacher.
A Personal Note
When I read about the way that trees triggered memories for Andrew, I was reminded about he way that very young children can "see" things in nature, things that are seemingly invisible to the more "mature" adults who look at the same phenomena. A personal story will illustrate this. Beginning in 1993, when my son was six years-old, I took him on at least two long trips a year. The justification for the trips was that when he studied American history he would already have "been there" and "seen it." In the summer of 1993, we drove from KS to CA through CO and southern Utah. When we saw the striking rock formations around Blanding, UT, I was amazed but my six-year old son said, "It looks just like the windows of a jet with all the people inside them." And, indeed, I looked at a particular rock formation and that is precisely what it appeared to be. I was astonished and moved that he could see with such clarity.
Two years later I took him on his first trip to New York City and upstate New York. We spent an hour visiting the Empire State Building and went up to the 84th floor observation deck. We looked North toward Central Park, and I pointed out to my son the contours of the park. Instead of wanting to know which streets bounded the park, he blurted out, "All the trees look like broccoli tops." And, indeed, they did, once I learned to see the world from his "angle" on it. It was then that I became utterly convinced that all the creativity we need for the next generation is already in seven year-olds. Indeed, Andrew Kendoll's story confirms this.
If there is any message in all of this it is that trees are not simply "there" to give us shade or leaves but that they are instruments of some of the most profound lessons of life. They become the means by which we see and remember the world. If you don't have a tree which has influenced your life, you are the poorer for it. Go find a tree today, hug it (whether or not you are a "tree-hugger"!), and tell it to reveal itself to you. You will see world differently. I almost feel like asking my former law colleagues (and others) which trees have influenced their lives. I wonder if they will smack me...