The Problem With Trees
Updated: Feb 26
There’s one piece of advice I wish we’d banish from our efforts to console one another.
When it comes to advice-giving in general, I now try to live by the principle that I won’t offer it unless someone outright asks me for it. I still catch myself dishing it out every so often, but the reason I strive to stop giving advice is because I’ve realized that when a person confides in you they usually aren’t looking for a solution. More often than not they’re well aware of any solutions that exist, but they’re still coming to terms with the problem. What they truly want isn’t your advice on how to solve their issue.
What they want, what I believe we all want, is a witness to our pain.
When I’ve offered well-intentioned, unsolicited advice to a confiding friend, a common response has been along the lines of: “Yeah, I know, but…” The message between the words spoken being: I don’t want your advice. I want your empathy. Please help me feel less alone in this pain. Yet, if you’ve gone through a hard spell, you’ve probably encountered a lot of well-intentioned, unsolicited advice. Some of it may have been really good advice you hadn’t considered, but maybe you weren’t ready to hear it. However, the one piece of advice I wish we’d all stop giving each other, the one often echoed evanescently by spiritual teachers, is this: just let it go.
Oh, wow. I mean, gosh, I hadn’t even considered that. What great advice! So, from my robotic mind, I’ll just drag this 386GB problem, that’s probably been writing itself in my hard drive since I was an infant, into this little trash can icon in my mind, and then I’ll click on the mental button that says “empty trash” and poof! Problem has been let go. Wow, that was really easy.
To begin with, what bugs me about this advice is that, as I mentioned above, if we’re aware of the problem we’re probably aware of this solution.
Yeah, maybe for some less troublesome problems it is that easy, to just let it go. In no way am I implying that holding on to the past or clinging to the future is a good idea, either. But when it comes to letting go, what I’ve learned (so far) is that it rarely, if ever, happens as a one shot deal. Letting go is not a choice; it is a process of choices akin to death. Sure, some deaths happen quickly. The heart decides to stop beating and bam—you’re dead. But chances are there was a whole process leading up to the heart deciding to stop. A whole lot of clogged arteries getting tired of the resistance to flow, for example. Some deaths, on the other hand, happen much more gradually, as individual cells, tissues and organs decide to let go, eventually amassing to the whole system letting go.
Letting go is similar to a death because in the process our attachment to something or someone dies.
Every time we make the conscious decision to detach from a troublesome thought or experience that haunts us, we wire a mental pathway away from the memory or anticipation. Usually, unless you happen to be walking on extremely fragile lichen, a path has to be tread over several times before it becomes recognizable. We don’t ‘ just let go’ and we’re done. We let go, and we let go again, and we let go again, and we let go again…. until one day maybe we don’t even realize we’re letting go anymore.
According to spiritual teacher Jeff Foster, he considers the notion of letting go to be a myth entirely. As he explains, when you’re fully engaged in the present moment, the now, all that life truly is, then there’s nothing to let go of. It’s only in our minds that we create the stories, the virtual realities, to let go of. But for those of us still learning to engage fully in the present moment, who dip into our virtual realities on the daily, letting go becomes a conscious choice we make from one moment to the next, until the pathway from the haunting experience or troublesome thought becomes second hand. How long it takes us to finally let go depends on how able we are to make this choice consistently, and how strongly we’ve attached ourselves to the problem in the first place.
Sometimes just finding the desire to let go of a problem can take a long time, because to some extent the problem still serves a purpose in our life.
Back when I was doing my Masters, I had a crotchety professor for a plant communities course. He was a tall, lean man with the aura of a drill sergeant. Sitting in his classroom, I always felt like I’d done something wrong. It was as if the fact that I didn’t already know what he was about to teach me was somehow shameful, as if in his mind students were ignorant beings he had to reluctantly attempt to educate, many of which wouldn’t even ‘get it’ anyway. He seemed grouchy at the whole world for its lack of understanding of plant communities. And I can’t fault him here. Industrialized civilization has been unforgivingly destructive and exploitative to natural systems, including those who work in industries that you’d think would be out to protect natural systems, but that in reality support their continued exploitation and destruction. At least I’d like to think that’s why he was so grouchy.
One day on a tour around campus he said something I’ve never forgotten.
We stopped to look up at a sad specimen of a tree. I don’t recall what species, nor can I entirely remember the scenario that had led to the tree being damaged. As we looked up at its grieving branches he said, “The problem with trees is that they take too long to die.” Why was this a problem? He wasn’t trying to say that trees had evolved incorrectly to die too slowly. What I understood from his comment was that because trees take a long time to die, we often don’t acknowledge their death until they’ve become what we consider a hazard. Until, perhaps, one windy day a dead branch breaks and comes crashing down on someone's car. It also makes it tricky to hold those accountable for the death, if the tree isn’t instantly dead. If, for example, through poor construction practices a tree's roots are severely damaged, those undertaking the construction are responsible for the tree’s death even though it’s not dead yet, and it may not be for a while yet. Because trees “take too long to die”, because they surrender to their death gradually, we might not fully recognize the damage done and respond accordingly.
In a natural setting, it doesn’t matter how long trees take to die.
In their dying states, even long after they’ve died, they provide habitat for all sorts for animals and fungi, and their decomposed remains go on to feed a new community of plants and other living organisms. Not unlike my crotchety professor, I get a little grouchy when people look at a woodlot with fallen trees and say, “Someone should clean this up!” In ‘cleaning it up’, you rob the natural system of valuable nutrients and habitat. Sure, take a little for firewood if you must, but the perspective that forests and woodlots should be tidy is bonkers. While some forests can look quite tidy, the perceived ‘tidiness’ may depend on what stage of succession the forest is in. As forests are transitioning from one stage of succession to another, you’re going to see a lot of dead and fallen trees. This decomposition is setting the stage for the composition of a new community of species.
This is not a mess that needs tidying. There is a purpose to this slow death. This is mother nature working her genius. Let her.
The problem with trees is not that they take too long to die (though I understand why my crotchety professor worded it that way). The problem with trees is that we place them in isolated environments where they’re not allowed to die, in company, in the time they see fit. The problem with trees is that they exist in a culture that perceives their slow death, their gradual letting go, as hazardous. If we spoke the language of trees, would we walk up to one and ask, “Can’t you just let go already?” as it held on by its severed root system, absorbing what water and nutrients it could in a concrete jungle of impermeability and compacted subsurfaces? I don’t think so. I think some of us might, if we took the moment to notice it, admire the tree’s perseverance to strive for life despite inevitable death.
This ‘problem’ with trees corresponds to a misconstrued understanding in our culture of the necessity of death in growth.
Where we’ve gotten it majorly wrong is that in a capitalist system, for the economy to grow natural resources must die. Yes, some renewable resources exist, but capitalism is not cyclical. It’s linear. It’s hierarchal. While the death of resources is used to feed the growth of the economy, the economy doesn’t then die back into order to contribute to the growth and regeneration of the resources that fed it. The economy continues to grow infinitely, at the expense of the resources, often at a rate greater than that required to renew the resources.
On a finer scale, many of us understand the purpose of composting. We know that the death of plant and animal material can be used to feed new growth in our gardens. Yet, many still tidy up woodlots or dutifully bag up fallen leaves from their lawns, not understanding that they’re robbing the trees of their own nutrients, that the sludgy, soggy, dying ‘mess’ of leaves and rotten logs has great purpose.
We tidy our lawns, our woodlots, our diseased and damaged trees, with the same judgement that we attempt to tidy other people’s lives with our well-intentioned, unsolicited advice.
The judgement being that death is something to be dealt with promptly. Don’t linger in it. Don’t let the leaves of your problems fall onto your existence and rot. Just let it go. Bag it up. Put it on the curb and move on. But when we do this, when we don’t honour the death of our problems, do we deprive ourselves of the nutrients we could extract from sitting with them and letting them go with dignity? Do we rob ourselves of the precise nutrients we need to go on growing?
The late Ram Dass said,
“When you go out into the woods, and you look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some of them are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree. The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying 'You're too this, or I'm too this.' That judging mind comes in. And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”
To do as Ram Dass did, to see each other as trees and appreciate each other just the way we are, it then seems obvious that our purpose is not to solve each other’s pain, or even attempt to solve it.
The “problem with trees” is only a problem when they’re forced to live in an environment not conducive to their cycles of regeneration; the environment being our culture. Perhaps the same can be said of our own pain, that our culture does not provide an environment conducive to processing it in the time that’s required. We don’t honour death before growth because we’re conditioned to avoid pain. So when faced with another’s pain, we strive to find solutions (that’s certainly been my knee-jerk reaction). When maybe the most helpful thing we can do is be the other tree in the forest, bent or straight or evergreen as we are, and simply witness another’s struggle to find their light. To keep each other company in this pain. To find habitat in this pain. To peak under the rot of this pain, and see the life that’s begun to live inside it.
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