Seeing, Seeing Trees

This week I photographed a fundraiser golf tournament held at Lambton Golf and Country Club, Toronto, an exclusive member club. It has the finest of everything, including the trees.

In a slow moment of a long day of shooting, I chatted with Simon who works in food and beverage. He was serving drinks for an outdoor reception following the golfing. I mentioned how beautiful the trees are. Simon concurred. He said that while he does enjoy playing golf on the course, what he really enjoys is walking the course and just admiring the trees.

So I asked Simon how many of the golfers that day he thought had seen the trees as he does. He understood. I wasn’t asking if they had seen them, but if they had really seen the trees, paid attention to them, felt somehow to be in their presence. His answer, a guess, but I’m going to concur with him: likely few if any.

The golfers no doubt know they are in a beautiful place even if they take it for granted. Easy for them to do. Many of them as a regular habit are quite used to the finest of restaurants where the staff are so enthusiastic greeting them at their arrival; the finest of golf sticks that move in their grip with perfect balance; the most comfortable of cars capable of travelling 200 km/hr without a shimmer. Everyday is nice things, so they don’t always notice what they have. The finest of things, and at Lambton, the finest of trees.

What Simon and I surmised, and I don’t think we were feeling superior – heavens knows how I have often failed to see things, how often I get it all wrong – no, I think as Simon and I commiserated, we might have felt sad that the golfers had missed out on a deep and healing experience on the course that day, that is, missed how wise the trees can be, how in seeing each tree as unique, in recognizing each tree as alive, as much alive as the golfers themselves are alive, that they missed not recognizing that about the trees; I’d say we felt sad for anyone missing out on a wisdom of the spirit, one to be found in the company of the trees, there on the course.

A sense of shared life with trees begins with attending to a single tree, noticing how it moves with the wind, how it forms a unique shape, expresses colour, exhibits a line and presence. With noticing all this for the tree, the next step to sensing something deep held by the tree would be, in silence, to listen to its presence. That is, giving a moment to let the tree speak to one. A golfer might then have heard something of life spoken by the trees, heard something the golfer did not know… but needs to know.

Such is the deep and mystical quality to nature, to being in nature: If we can but see a tree for what it is, this remarkable expression of life, listen for it calling out to us, hear it tell of deeper things, of mystery; if we would but stop for a moment from our relentless effort to control everything, dominate this life, acquire as much as possible, secure the best for ourselves, to win the game. And instead if we could but see ourselves among the trees, feel ourselves beholden to their wisdom, reverential of their ways, so we might find our own deep presence and connection with life.

Yes, I’d say Simon and I were sad the golfers may have spent the whole of the day focused on hitting the ball as far as they could, on worrying about their perfect form, on taking equipment, on getting a good score, on keeping up friendly yet competitive camaraderie, on being so indulged on arrival with gifts, staff to attend to them, treats along the way, an excellent lunch, a fine dinner…the day focussed on how all was in service to them, all was about them…the beautiful trees included. The trees being a lovely backdrop to the game.

What if instead the trees were seen to be alive, and having something to tell? West Coast artist Emily Carr in the summer would go out to the forests to paint. She’d find a place and set up her easel, but she would first just sit there, for hours, could sit still for a whole day. She was waiting for the trees to tell her what to paint. Painting wasn’t about herself, her ego, her skill and craft, her getting attention for her painting. Painting for her, as any artist, is about discovery, what the world might reveal to her and for her to pass on. To feel a meaning for what we do in life, the sages teach, is not our acting on the world to get what we want, but our waiting on the world for what it might reveal to us; what it might reveal to us about who we are in our deep place. And the sages say this makes for our peace.

Hard to say for Simon and me what any tree’s voice is except for a feeling in our heart, some sense of the presence of the trees, some feeling of companionship with trees, that the trees care for us, that they are our companions in life, have a lot to teach us, that out there among the trees, attentive to the trees and to nature herself, we find our own Self, feel at home in ourselves when among their spirits and honouring their presence.

What makes the difference in seeing? Somehow, it seems that accepting the tree as wise and able to teach us something is to imagine a mystique to life, to acknowledge that life is deeper and more complex and more wonderful than ever we can know. Ever know. And to see the tree as being that mystery by which we discover our humanity, is to be more attuned to our being human than our succeeding in life of consumption, an obsession of having more and more and more. As the Shamans believe, mystery is not something as yet unknown to us, something waiting to be discovered, but rather, as the Shamans tell it, mystery itself, not its solution, is actually a way to navigate life and sense its meaning, a way for us to discover who we are and why we are here.

If we see mystery in the existence of a tree, if we approach the tree with reverence – even see the whole of nature in that light – see it as wiser than we are, our guide and not our resource, as Indigenous peoples believe, if only we might, then with this view, might we see nature not simply to serve us, but more, to join with us in the marvel of living life. That we find our Self, a Self we can love, that Self to be found in our sense of belonging to the natural world, our feeling of being at one with the natural world, and through that to being at one with others, companion with each other. And here the sages of all religions agree: pursuing this deep place of being human is to find, at the very centre of the mystery, one truth, compassion. In that felt experience of the deep place of our self, at times awakened in us, we sense how we are bound to each other, not in judgement, but unconditional acceptance. We learn by listening to the world about us, we learn compassion and find ourselves overcome with a deep gratitude for this life given us.

And so, to live in this way regarding the mystery of the natural world may be a way through which we find our soul, our own soul, out there, distinct from, individual but not independent, entwined in the soul of all things. For Simon and me, we feel a small gesture of acknowledging the trees to be as alive as we are alive is to begin to find our felt relationship to this world, understand the nature of life, to begin to feel we belong to this world, to each other, to feel a wholeness in this belonging, in being at one, imbued and imbuing all that is life. So it is instead finding our soul not inside us as our possession, but out there, our soul found in the soul of the world; not in our self-centred absorption with controlling and winning at life, but there, looking to the world for our wisdom, out there in a communion with all life. Yes, a lot to ask. A lifetime of discovery, as Simon and I continue to experience.

What is seen then when seeing the trees: just that, to notice them, pause for a while, give them our full attention, notice how they move, how they reflect the light, how they flourish, as Simon does walking the course, not bothering with the golf, but in his full attention, loving the trees he walks among, loving that walk, going out, waiting upon the trees and the leaves and the grasses and the birds for his joy and his wisdom.