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"We Are Trees"

The little creature was lopsided, scrambling on the ground, its leg obviously broken. My hand smudged the window as I watched my son push aside the mulch with his fingers and gently scoop the frightened bird into a box he'd pierced with air holes and filled with soft stuffing. 

As he drove off to a bird sanctuary, I thought about him and his brother as young children, their fingers pushing mulch, clutching grass, grasping branches. I thought of their bare feet running across dirt, shuffling through leaf piles, splashing in puddles. I remembered two small figures jumping up and down, sticks in hand, shouting, “Look — we are trees! We are trees!” 

And I remembered myself, too, armed with wetwipes and antibacterial gel, holding off as long as I could before swooping in to clean those fingers and feet. I remembered telling myself not to worry, that they could have an extra bath later.

Looking back now, I am glad that I was able to sit on my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, at least temporarily, and that I had the sense not to interrupt the communion happening in front of me. I am thinking about all of my separations — how I watch life happening through windows and the world unfolding through the screens of modern technology. Inherently, I am a home-body, defining that home as the four walls around me. I have an aversion to dirt and bugs, a preference for wearing shoes and sitting in chairs. 

I am realising how disconnected I am from my cultural inheritance, specifically, from the deep respect for the soil beneath me. As a six-year-old, I watched a graceful lady impart my first classical dance lesson: bending at the knees and touching the ground in apology for the upcoming striking of my feet. The morning mantra I heard from family members expressed a similar apology before rising from bed and placing even one toe on the ground. The pre-dining mantra intoned profound gratitude to Mother Earth for being the source of not only the food, but also the people harvesting and preparing it.

Embedded within that same cultural mechanism was continuous contact with the ground, all day long: walking barefoot, sitting cross-legged, bending into the geometries of yoga. Modern science confirms that repeated and direct physical contact with the Earth's endless supply of electrons has a grounding effect, contributing to the bioelectrical stability of bodily systems. But from a psychological or even spiritual point of view, I suspect that all of these actions also breed a constant consciousness of the Earth under one's feet and expand one's sphere of awareness to include that Earth.

I regret that so much ancient wisdom like this has been lost, kneaded away by time, leavened by globalism, and flattened by appropriation. So much has been rejected by those born to it, due to the self-doubt and self-hatred deliberately cultivated by colonialism and now enduring as a pernicious legacy. I regret that such influences amount to yet another separation I have allowed within my life, despite my best efforts.

Thankfully, however, this ancient wisdom must still be coded within my genetic and karmic structures, because it has leapfrogged and manifested within my children. In spite of my shortcomings, they have received their inheritance, hands open, and embraced it wholeheartedly. I recognise that, within our relationship, the movement of wisdom between generations is not unidirectional. Indeed, from them I have learned lessons of greater and more abiding value.

After all, it was their desires, their inclinations, that pulled me into city parks when they were young, and then, as they grew older, into the foliage of state forests and the rock formations of national monuments. They are the ones who made me place my own fingers and feet on the planet. They are the example I am trying to follow, as their free

time is never spent within four walls, but rather, hiking on trails, climbing over rocks, camping under stars. To them, air means the mountain breeze and water, the ocean waves. Vacation means days spent walking on and breathing in the world around them.

The difference between us is simply this: their definition of home is far richer and wider than mine. I am at home in my house, and they are at home on the Earth. There are no separations for them, only inclusions. They are science and math types, these boys. They are typical young people with phones and screens, just like their peers. At work and at school, they analyse and dissect, label and programme. 

When I observe them, though, I see roots growing, sprawling in all directions. I see them as part of a system, their fibres and branches intertwining with place and people. All of their analysis and dissection, their labeling and programming, happens within this rootedness. Their wide definition of home has made them unable to learn and act within a vacuum, unable to separate their education about the world, from the world. As such, they engineer with consciousness of the land on which structures are built, with consciousness of the people for whom they build. Home is the wide Earth, and by extension, its people are family, and all are tightly interwoven.

I surmise that education as if people and planet matter requires certain kinds of expansion. It means pushing lectures and readings outward into tactile interactions with land and community. It means pulling the definition of home outward, so that it becomes the foundation and context for every lesson, from mathematics to computer programming. It means demonstrating how every theoretical concept touches the world in some way.

For some years, I directed an education grant programme for teachers dedicated to adding context to curricula. With this financial support, biology students learned about the dwindling population of monarch butterflies by planting a pollinator garden in a local park. Elementary school students learned the dangers of invasive species by conducting mass weeding and by lobbying the Department of Natural Resources to protect native plants. The programme's goal was to show students that their education was intimately connected to life happening around them. While doing this work, however, my biggest surprise was the students' lack of surprise. This was not a revolutionary concept for them — they already knew the lesson, deep in their bones. 

It occurs to me that we adults thwart children from their inborn understanding, that we bully them into forgetting. We pull their natural comprehension of home and family inward, shrinking it down from planet to country to household, and into even smaller and smaller units. Those children are breaking free, and not a moment too soon. So many of the next generation are determined to hold onto their birthright of clean Earth and connected community. So many have become warriors for this cause, planting trees to rebuild forests, developing technologies to filter oceans, lobbying governments to change laws. They are determined to preserve the ancient knowledge that every living thing, large and small, is intertwined with the next. They are refusing separation.

I think of that little broken bird often, lurching and faltering on the ground. I think of humanity lurching and faltering on a planet it has taken to the brink of destruction. I think of the struggles of modern life, with its broken support systems, broken communities, broken connections. Then, my hope returns. I think of the next generation: one that puts its hand to the Earth, feels a beating heart, and does the needful.

"We Are Trees" first published in Regenerative Learning

Notes: "We Are Trees" was a prize-winning essay in the 2021 Schumacher College international competition. It was published in Regenerative Learning, which includes the writing of Thich Nhat Hahn and a foreword by Pope Francis. 

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