The Kindness of Trees

The Kindness of Trees

When most Americans think of "Native Americans" they think of feathers, moccasins, dancing around fires and times long past. Most don’t realize that some of the native people here retain a way of understanding themselves in relation to the rest of creation that is powerfully different from the "American" way. This article is meant to be a glimpse into a tiny piece of that different worldview.

Mainstream "Western Civilization," the culture that came here through Europe, lives in opposition to the rest of creation. It speaks of subduing the land, conquering the oceans, and breaking horses. The woods, in the European fairy tales, are scary, dangerous and often deadly places. By contrast, in Indian Country we’re taught that if a child is in the woods and can’t find their way back to their people they are truly at home. Everything they need is right there in the woods, and they should settle down and look around to find what they need.

We’re taught that all the plants, animals, rocks, wind, sun and moon are our elders, our family. We were created last, and they were all here before us. Part of the responsibility these elders accepted when we were created is to teach us. We can learn all we need to know from these elders, if we pay attention.

If you look over our city (Ann Arbor) from a fourth story window or above it looks like a forest. One of our nicknames is "Tree Town." From a fourth story window the trees are clearly the dominant face of this valley. I’m thinking they’re much more than a pretty face.

I’ve lived on the Old Westside in Tree Town for over 20 years. During that time three big trees have come down during storms within a block of my home. One fell just to the west of my home, taking out a chain link fence. Within it’s range were 5 houses, several cars, electrical and phone wires and the lives of about 12 people. That tree fell in the only place it could to avoid damage to all of that.

Another fell on the opposite corner of my block. It fell across a yard and into a driveway, scratching some of the paint on the car belonging to the owner of the lot in which it grew. Within its range were three houses, a church, 4-5 cars, two sets of electrical and phone wires, an electrical transformer, fire hydrant, school crossing and the lives of at least 4 people. It too fell in the only place it could to avoid major damage.

The third fell onto the porch of a lovely home, requiring repair of the porch roof and railing. It missed the major part of that house, three more historic houses, a very nice garage, 9 or 10 cars, electric and phone wires and 5 people. This beautiful old tree fell in the one place where it could cause the least damage.

Last week a friend told me about some damage his house sustained in the storm that recently passed through here. Before the storm his house needed some major and expensive repairs. One wall of the foundation needed replacement, and it needed new plumbing and wiring. The septic field needed replacement and he’d been quoted a price of $30,000 for that work alone. He was carrying a sizable mortgage on the house and had no idea how he could ever afford to take proper care of the house and stay financially solvent. He was trying to figure something out but not coming up with any good answers.

During last weekend’s storm two huge old trees fell on the house, knocking it 6 inches off the foundation and caving in the roof. It looks like his insurance will cover the loss and a neighbor offered to buy the house "as is" for the lot. The trees fixed his problem.

My last story is about the maple that grows between my home and my neighbor’s home to the south. My neighbor’s livelihood is gardening. He grows and sells rare and valuable plants and is known across North America for his beautiful, high quality bulbs. My tree provides a fair amount of shade to some of his prime growing area and he’s let it be known that he doesn’t always appreciate that shade. Last summer he stopped me when I was outside and asked if there was something wrong with the maple. It had been dropping branches for a couple of years and looked very thin from his perspective. I hadn’t noticed a problem. When I stepped back and surveyed the tree I noticed that on his side of the line the tree branches were significantly less abundant than on my side. From my side of the line the tree is lush and full. And it shows no sign of being ill. I began to suspect that the maple tree was responding to his need by providing more sun to his yard.

As I consider these events I remember hearing people talk about all of them. Except for my friend with the ruined house, homeowners complained about having to repair fences, clean up the mess, paint the car and fix the porch. They were upset at the inconvenience the trees had caused them. People didn’t seem to really notice how lightly they’d gotten off. Their attention was on the disturbance to their idea of how things should be.

From my perspective it looks like the trees are being kind to us even though we are pretty crabby and ungrateful. Who knows what generosity and help we might find it we entertain the possibility that the natural world is on our side.

One comment

  1. I LOVE this! Thank you!

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